Succession planning for leadership roles remains issue

29 December 2015 4 min. read

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.