Now, not later, is the time to prepare for leadership succession. Developing a plan for continuously strong bench strength is a plan for long-term success.
- By Dave Desouza
Anyone who enjoys learning the history of commonly used expressions must wonder about the source of the term “bench strength” when used in reference to succession planning and leadership gaps. It reflects America’s love of baseball, as it refers to the skill of players sitting on the dugout bench, ready to step up and play ball as needed.
In baseball, player gaps usually occur because of injuries or sickness. In business, leadership gaps reflect lack of planning. For many businesses, the bench of capable and competent talent is not in a state of readiness to move into key leadership positions as required. Maintaining leadership bench strength is a critical strategy for ensuring there are always developed leaders ready to move the organization forward. It is not simply a strategy for filling vacant positions.
The process of developing bench strength has to take many factors into account that are unique to the organization. They include identifying the position in which a vacancy could potentially lead to business interruption; developing a consistent approach to identifying high potential talent; and designing a development program. Businesses operating in multiple markets must also develop global bench strength, adding a complexity to the process.
Inertia in leadership planning can threaten the long-term viability of a business. As baby boomers retire at an accelerating rate, they are taking with them years of experience, developed competencies, experience-based decision-making abilities and individual talents. Many have worked their way up through the ranks and are in mid-to-senior management and executive positions. It is not just retiring boomers creating leadership vacuums. Talent turnover is an equal risk, and it can happen with very little warning. Another source of leadership gaps is the rapidly changing global business environment.
Well-managed companies develop bench strength to meet the needs of succession planning and anticipated leadership needs. Leadership development programs should produce an optimal pool of talent and can do so by meeting certain criteria. First, the pool of talent should be of sufficient a size to fill key positions, on a global basis, now and over the next five years. Second, the leadership bench needs to reflect corporate diversity, inclusion policies and goals. Third, the process of developing bench strength must include a talent retention plan or the effort is at risk of being wasted.
Beyond Vacancies and Into Future Planning
Succession planning is not simply about replacing positions. A point often overlooked concerning leadership bench strength is that succession management considers talent able to assume positions in a growing, competitive and adaptive business. Leadership development is aligned with the corporate mission and long-term goals and prepares talent capable of helping the business capitalize on growth opportunities, which may occur tomorrow or five years from now.
That is quite different from prepping someone to replace a vacant position so that day-to-day work continues uninterrupted. Leadership development considers talent acculturation; decision making style and abilities; ability to manage in new market spaces; and ability to design and implement strategic initiatives.
The first step is doing an assessment and gap analysis. What are the key current positions critical to ongoing success, and what competencies are needed now and in the future to fill those positions and future leadership roles yet to be created?
This is a strategic process in that it enables the organization to identify high-potential talent for development. Competencies and attributes include decision-making abilities, exceeding performance expectations, ability to get results, analytical skills, ability to identify problems and problem solve, interpersonal skills, ability to articulate the corporate culture, ability to grasp financial concepts, and whether the person has a global perspective.
Identifying the right people is a process in itself, involving skills assessments, mentoring and coaching, and job performance. However, job performance in this case refers to a broader concept than completing daily work assignments. It refers to how well the person takes ownership of job responsibilities, informally and formally leads coworkers, contributes to departmental efficiency, and so on.
Developing Leadership Capacity
The leadership development process needs assessment also. Though most corporations have training and development programs, the question is whether there are also programs developing leadership capacity.
Job training is not leadership capacity development. Ideally, leadership development strategies include encouraging talent to cross functions to give more opportunities to identify and strengthen competencies, while developing a corporate mindset and diversity of thinking.
To develop leadership strength in a global setting, talent development can include greater mobility and greater local manager autonomy within established guidelines. Leaders need cultural awareness, the ability to function in rapidly changing marketplaces, and the talent to lead in international business settings.
Effective succession planning requires the full support of top management because it requires the integration of multiple human resources functions that include talent selection, training and development, performance assessment, compensation, assignment to mentoring programs, and others. It takes a corporate investment of time and effort, but more importantly, a top-down approach ensures that the succession management plan is linked to strategic business plans and takes a long, broad view of the organization.
In addition, the process for developing leadership should be widely communicated across the enterprise. Staff members should recognize that talent is recognized in an inclusive manner, and the business will invest in high potentials.
Every business needs to re-assess its preparedness for the future in terms of leadership capabilities. Are the right people with the right attributes being developed in the right way? Does the leadership identification and development process reflect a diversity of people with a diversity of experiences?
Having a robust succession plan for keeping key leadership roles filled is not just a management theory recommendation. It is an imperative in a global marketplace that is in a continual state of change and becoming ever more complex.
When the bases are full and there are two outs, is there a batter ready to step up to the leadership plate and bring the runners home?