Succession planning for leadership roles remains issue

29 December 2015

In a series of four articles on, Angel Hoover, EMEA Regional Practice Leader Talent Management & Organisational Alignment at Towers Watson, reflects on key trends and developments in the human capital space. In her first article Hoover discussed some fallacies around performance management, while the second article explored the more practical side of the debate – what to do with all of these insights, and how should they impact technology and systems. The third article looked into the concrete benefits of workforce analytics and planning, while the fourth in the series zooms in on succession management.

This time of the year, just as the holiday music hits the top of the genre Spotify list; succession planning tops many organisational agendas. Although many organisations do something related to succession, they are very aware they do not do enough. Only half of respondents in a survey on this topic conducted by Stanford University and Heidrick & Struggles in 2014 reported they have “ready now” successors identified for the CEO role*. Another report, conducted by AlixPartners and Vardis, shows that in particular for CEO roles succession plans are often more talk than action.

Succession planning at the top

Why is that? First off, most organisations have not identified their expected Leadership Profile. What are the specific skills, capabilities and behaviours required of Senior Leaders? What is the prototype of what we need to advance our organisation? And remember, this is not just about what leaders need to be successful in today’s environment, it’s about what leaders will need for the future. In a study conducted and released by Oxford Economics and Towers Watson** in 2013 suggest, the profile of leaders is transforming. Leaders in 2021 must be comfortable operating in a much more global environment, managing in the digital age, responding agilely and nimbly to economic, political and regulatory influences and, oh, by the way, improving their ability to co-create, collaborate and team effectively with employees. It’s a tall, but vital order for the leaders of tomorrow and organisations are taking steps to refresh or overhaul their Leadership Profiles to reflect these new expectations.

The second culprit of the succession dearth is that succession planning just doesn’t go far enough. It isn’t sufficient to put an employee’s name in a database as a succession candidate. Having done this, you’ve only completed the first of several essential steps required to build a healthy bench of leaders. It has no material impact if the organisation doesn’t invest in getting that leader ready for the position for which she or he has been identified! And this requires much more effort, which few organisations execute well.

Many experts in the leadership space, including CLC, CEB and even Towers Watson provide a host of recommendations to transition from succession planning to succession management. Remember, the point is to reduce the risk of not having ready successors available when key leadership positions open up, so what needs to happen? It’s simple: create a development plan for each of the key succession candidates. And hold business leaders accountable for making sure it gets executed:  not as simple. Even if candidates are identified as “ready now,” it is likely they could significantly benefit from continuing development or a set of key experiences that enable a much smoother transfer of power when it’s required. But for your other candidates identified as “ready later” or “ready future”, it’s essential to surround them with a robust development plan that includes key experiences, continued leadership exposure and formal education. Otherwise, why bother to put them on a list?

Angel Hoover - Towers Watson

The third reason that succession fails to achieve its desired impact comes down to evaluating aspirations of each successor. I can’t number the organisations who have not evaluated whether an individual has been asked if she or he really wants the role for which they have been intended. I am an avid proponent of having a transparent discussion with those on the successor list to further motivate them to engage and invest in the development you are offering. In my experience, it may also be the retention mechanism you need to keep them.

* 2014 Report on Senior Executive Succession Planning and Talent Development, Stanford University and Heidrick & Struggles, 2014.

** Global Talent 2021, Oxford Economics and Towers Watson, 2013.


Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

17 April 2019

Soft skills matter in the workplace just as much as technical expertise, writes Samantha Caine, Managing Director of Business Linked Teams.

For too long technical expertise has been seen as the marker of a strong candidate for development into a sales or leadership position. Sales and leadership candidates are tasked with demonstrating a diverse and wide-ranging set of technical skills, yet their aptitude in these technical skills or ‘hard skills’ cannot signify great leadership potential. This is why a healthy balance of soft skills and technical ability is required. 

So what exactly is the difference between technical skills and soft skills? In engineering, it’s crucial to demonstrate knowledge of physics as well as a strong grasp on mathematical equations. Yet, in any industry, it’s important for leaders to be able to interact with other people effectively with soft skills like communication, empathy and adaptability. 

Business Linked Team’s 2018 study into internal leadership development revealed that 69% of large organisations are prioritising the identification and development of future leaders from within the workforce. As more and more organisations begin to invest in sales or leadership development within their existing workforces, more focus needs to be placed on ensuring the right soft skills are in place. 

With those soft skills in place throughout the workforce, the business will benefit from a wider pool of potential leaders developing under their noses, and it should be the same where sales candidates are concerned. 

It’s not just about easier access to ideal candidates for these positions without the rigmarole of recruiting from outside of the organisation. The leadership development study also found that 89% of HR decision makers say succession planning has become a top priority. Those currently serving in leadership positions can’t lead forever and the same goes for those generating sales for the business.

Why leaders must balance technical expertise with soft skills

From people leaving for new opportunities or retirement, to people simply stepping aside to focus on other areas of the business, successful leaders and salespeople require experienced and capable successors that will be ready and able to confidently step into their shoes and pick up the mantle without the business experiencing any lapse in performance.

Soft skills make stronger candidates

When it comes to the soft skills required, a strong leader must be able to manage through clear communication and effective time management, coaching and goal setting. They must be able to demonstrate empathy and empower their teams to be successful, productive and fully engaged. And beyond simply giving direction, they must also be able to take direction from those above them and cascade the business strategy down through their teams. 

A strong sales candidate must possess the ability to communicate value to the customer, negotiate well and protect margin or the ability to increase the scope of a particular sales opportunity. 

With the relevant soft skills in place, the business will benefit from increased productivity, greater agility against changing market conditions and greater transparency. In turn, this will provide visibility on issues and inefficiencies while removing opportunity for miscommunication. All of this can transform the culture of a department, improving employee satisfaction and reducing staff turnover. 

Ultimately, developing leadership or sales candidates will require the business to strike the right balance between technical skills and soft skills, and this requires an effective and sustained learning journey.

A balanced learning journey

Facilitating and supporting the development of leadership and sales is best achieved by establishing training groups. By cultivating training groups, businesses are creating talent pools that will inspire and support each other on the learning journey. However, personal goals and learning objectives must be defined for each individual based on their own existing skillsets and the skills that each individual needs to develop. 

With the emergence of e-learning, businesses recognise the value of online-based learning activities, yet many make the mistake of opting for one-size-fits-all solutions which are solely focused on self-study. A development solution will only deliver true return on investment if it combines e-learning activities with group learning activities that provide opportunity for shared experiences and support.

A blended learning solution that combines self-study and face-to-face group learning activities will aid strong development of the talent pool through shared experiences. Through these shared experiences, those undergoing the training will organically develop a support network that supports the development of the group as much as it supports the development of each individual. 

The blended learning approach is supported by one of the seven principles of human learning that socially supported interactions aid the individual development of expertise, metacognitive skills, and formation of the learner’s sense of self. The strongest opportunities for development can be unlocked by blending workshops with online activities such as virtual sessions, peer coaching, self-study, online games and business simulations. But it’s crucial to provide a blend of one-to-one and group sessions too.

Beyond delivering a better learning outcome for the employee, the blended learning approach allows organisations to adapt their training quickly and easily to shifting business demands in an ever-changing landscape.