Successful Succession Planning

HR MATTERS JACK BUCALOby Jack Bucalo, Featured Contributor

The success of any succession planning program is directly and inexorably tied to one basic premise – the respect that the CEO and line executives have in the Chief HR Officer. If the CHRO has earned that respect by being an equal business partner; the program will succeed or fail based on the validity and usefulness of its content. Conversely, if the CHRO does not have that respect, the program is doomed to failure and will be considered by line management as nothing more than another HR paperwork exercise.

There are many key points in any succession planning program that will determine whether or not it will be successful.

First, you should recognize that this is a LINE MANAGEMENT plan. In the end, the line Business-succession-planningexecutives who use the data in the plans will rely on their own inputs and those of their line management peers far more heavily in comparison to any competency model, behavioral test data, et al. Such models and data are considered a distant second when compared to the CEO and top line management’s viewpoints, so don’t waste a lot of time, money and effort on such tools.

Second, you must get the practical support of the CEO and top management to USE the data in the plan whenever a promotional, compensation (salary, bonus and stock) or development opportunity occurs. The CEO must convince everyone that this is a critical need of top management and the Board. If the CEO does not use the plan data in this regard, the plan will likely fail.

Third, to EARN that support, each plan must list only succession candidates who are VIABLE ones, and not ones that HR allowed a line executive to list without being properly vetted. To the extent possible, it is best to agree upon the recommended succession candidates in person with the line management executive, rather than having them listed electronically, so that the HR leader can challenge any inappropriate person at that time. If the listed succession candidates are not REALISTIC ones, the plan will likely fail.

Fourth, the HR leader responsible for administering the program should KNOW IN DETAIL: a. each management position and what it really takes to be successful in it in terms of experience, technical/job knowledge, management/executive skills, financial skills, interpersonal and leadership skills, and b. each succession candidate and his/her skill sets and past performance results achieved against key specific business objectives. Knowing this information allows the HR leader to effectively interact with line executives and to be able challenge any succession candidate who is recommended for a particular position, but is NOT really a viable candidate due to some performance and/or skill deficiencies. Some line executives want to fill-in all or most of the slots to make their organization look good. If the HR leader does not really know the above information well enough to challenge any line executive, the plan will likely fail.

Fifth, for the top two or three organization levels, and lower if possible, it is highly recommended that the data be acquired in a face-to-face discussion with the appropriate executive. Also, all recommended succession candidates should be vetted by HR and line management to insure that all are viable and realistic ones. Even the data that is submitted electronically should be subject to a detailed vetting process.

Sixth, the plan is NOT a matter of the software, forms or procedures. Do not spend a lot of time and energy on such matters, as top line management could correctly care less about them. Conversely, spend your time and energy learning the information noted in the fourth point above and acquiring the comments of appropriate line management executives regarding each recommended succession candidate’s ability to do the job. Getting their thoughtful and accurate comments is critical to your success because, in the end, it is line management’s opinion that matters the most to the CEO

Seventh, establish a Personal Development Plan for all incumbents and succession candidates, especially those at the middle/upper and top management levels, for the upcoming year and monitor it to ensure compliance. In doing so, recognize that almost all succession candidates typically possess an excellent set of interpersonal skills. Therefore, coaching such candidates is usually inappropriate unless a major flaw exists. Most of their development should deal with giving them more exposure to the parts of the company’s business that they are unfamiliar with, such as involvement in the strategic, financial and budget planning for key divisions, cross functional assignments, exposure to a particular function that they are unfamiliar with, interaction with higher level management and/or the Board on particular subjects, etc.

Eighth, here are some critical skills for upper/middle and upper management candidates:

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#D8D8D8″ end_color=”#D8D8D8″ border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″]

  1. Business function knowledge – how well the candidate understands the various business functions, (sales, marketing, software development, manufacturing, operations, etc.) and the sub functions within each function, e.g. for manufacturing, this includes production, quality control, manufacturing engineering, inventory control. etc.
  2. Business Interaction acumen – the candidate’s knowledge of AND ability to effectively interact with the upper/middle and top management executives from other business functions.
  3. Financial acumen – the candidate’s understanding of the key financial numbers on the company and division’s income and cash flow statements, how the profitability of its current products relate to them, budget planning and performance, and the company’s strategic plan goals.
  4. Business Strategy skills – product/market research, product/market development and planning, strategic thinking and planning, and financial and product contingency planning.
  5. Executive skills – championing innovation, leadership, consistently achieving profitable financial results, successful strategic growth, establishing an appropriate work culture, outside audit and market analyst interaction, Board and top management interaction, etc.
  6. Management skills – planning (including MBO), controlling, organizing and leading.[/message]

Lastly, the program should track the promotional, compensation (salary, bonus and stock), development plan progress and turnover data of every incumbent and succession candidate in an effort to quantitatively demonstrate the worth of the program while highlighting any potential problems.

In sum, if the Board, CEO and line executives consider the CHRO as an equal business partner, the plan has an excellent chance of being successful. However, in addition, the finalized succession candidates must be considered realistic ones, the plan data must be utilized by line management and the development plans must be followed. If all these elements are accomplished well, the program will likely succeed.


Jack Bucalo
Jack Bucalo
JACK has led the Global HR function for a Fortune 500 and 1000 international company and several other large international companies. With four years of line experience complementing his HR experience, he believes that the CHRO or HR Leader should play a more direct role in helping the CEO to achieve the company's business objectives and strategic goals, while effectively implementing its administrative duties. In doing so successfully, the CHRO or HR Leader can become an equal business partner with his/her line management peers while becoming more directly involved in the company's operational mainstream, rather than being just an administrative afterthought. As a pragmatic practitioner, Jack publishes detailed and actionable articles on a wide variety on critically-important HR issues on BIZCATALYST 360°. He is also on the advisory board for other web sites. Jack's over 20 years of executive-level HR experience for which he was responsible for company, executive and Board-related matters, form the basis for most of viewpoints.
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