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Succession - Why We've Been Missing the Mark

[00:00:00] Hi, I'm Emily Frieze-Kemeny, host of Let's Talk, People, where leaders come to bridge humanity and profitability. Informed by a couple decades of work as a head of talent and leadership development, I'm here to amplify leaders so they can exalt and thrive.

[00:00:33] If you're here because you thought this episode was going to be about succession, the show, and you're really pumped about it, I'm really sorry. We're talking about the real deal, actual humans who work in organizations and how we think about succession, what happens, what should be happening because this is the type of activity that goes on or should be going on in every single organization that has a little bit of scale.

[00:01:00] And most importantly, because we like to dig into the hard stuff, we are going to talk about why succession planning in most cases is not working. So as somebody who's been doing succession planning within large organizations for many, many, many years, I noticed some things. I noticed how much time and effort we put into having conversations about people and their potential.

[00:01:23] How many hours we spent making org charts, charts, stats to help us know what our succession looked like. How healthy was the pipeline? Who was ready? Who wasn't ready? And in how many years? And how many times? Absolutely nothing came from that work in the end. Did it help us to know which people to invest in and to develop?

[00:01:54] Absolutely. When it came, though, to the time when the people in the roles at the top of those charts that we were preparing for were ready to move on to a new role, retire, or happen to leave, the percentage of times we would move in somebody who was on that chart was much lower than we had liked. And even if we ended up getting it right, there was very few times where we would even go back to the charts and look at who the people were and what their readiness was.

[00:02:27] And it's not because We all stink at doing succession planning and that it wasn't worth the time. The reason that we weren't doing it right is because there were certain questions we weren't asking about succession to begin with and because circumstances change. And this is why we have not been succeeding at succession planning for all of these years.

[00:02:53] So let's talk first about identifying people who potential for leadership roles of greater responsibility. Then we're going to talk about conditions. So first, when we would look at what makes somebody ready and able and with the potential to become a future leader, to move into larger roles, we would look at two factors.

[00:03:19] We looked at their track record of performance, In some roles, it's easier than others. So roles where you can quantify impact and results makes it a little bit easier. Roles where it's more qualitative makes it harder, but we would still bring judgment to that. And we would look at what we believed was that person's potential.

[00:03:40] Sometimes we would use assessments and tools to help us, but often it came from our impression of that individual, how they showed up. So what is that missing? It's missing two things. It's missing whether the person has the interest and desire to take on greater leadership and in the ways we would like them to.

[00:04:01] And two, it has the effect of putting bias into the system. So I'm going to start with the bias and we'll work backwards into what do people really want and is there an alignment there. So the people who often show up best in terms of their leadership potential have the ability to speak their voice with confidence and conviction in meetings.

[00:04:29] They hold themselves in a certain way. and they have a healthy bit of ego in many cases. There's actually a pretty high correlation between higher levels of narcissism and people who see themselves or show up as leaders and are chosen to lead. Of course, what that leaves out is whether they're really as good as they present.

[00:04:55] And second, it brings into the system a bias towards a certain way of showing up in the world, and even more so, characteristics that look like and feel like the people who are currently in leadership. So for those of you who care and truly care about diversity and inclusion and equity, this is a big watch out.

[00:05:20] Because what we like in others is usually the qualities that we like in ourselves or what we're used to and familiar with, and that's why we have diversity and equity issues at the top of most organizations. It forces us to have to really think about what different. ways of leading can look like and different ways that can present in the few ways that senior leaders who are making those decisions of who sits in which boxes on the charts have, which is seeing people show up as they present not how they interact with their teams, not how they're interacting with their customers when we're not in the room, not The incredible intellect that they bring to the work.

[00:06:04] It's how they present themselves and present in group forums. So that's a major, major watch out. And it's one that we have not designed in to most succession processes and discussions. Then there's the other part of it, which we forget, which is what people really want. We make lots of assumptions and I can share a personal anecdote about it.

[00:06:28] We make lots of assumptions about what people want to do. And so when we put them in these boxes and on these charts, it's because we want them or we think they can do certain roles, and it's based on their performance to date. And so often, we do two things wrong. One, we forget to ask those individuals and to keep asking them, let's say every six months, maximum a year, of what are their desires?

[00:06:57] What are their aspirations? What are they ready to take on? And two, that we create the conditions where it's safe for them to tell the truth. Because one of the things that we've taught people in organizations is that being on a path to promotion, being considered a high potential, means you'll get paid.

[00:07:18] A fancy title to feel proud of, it has prestige, and most importantly, it's associated with money. And so if somebody is astute enough to know that they need to lie to you and tell you, oh yeah, I'm global, I'm happy to move to China if you need me to, when there's no way in hell they will go. That's a flaw in the system, it's a flaw in the process, because they know there's no alternative to getting that little bit extra in the bonus, or getting that little bit extra in their base salary, unless they tell you what you want to hear so that you see them as a high potential.

[00:07:52] When really the issue is that we don't have enough paths of how we show people their worth and their value. Whether that's a path of an innovator, the path of a technical expert, the path of a client expert, there are so many different pathways we could create that would save us, those leaders, and the people that they reluctantly lead over time.

[00:08:18] All the pain and suffering that we've had in organizations by just giving them other paths, where we'll pay them and give them some sort of a title that makes them feel proud for their value. Because succession should not just be about people management, it should be about what types of people and what types of roles impact the future success of your organization.

[00:08:38] Which leads to the other two factors that need to come into play for succession that we often miss in the succession planning. Two things change over time. One is leaders in the system of the organization change. So even if the person that you had initially mapped that person to as a potential successor is still in their role, their colleagues, so the other leaders that are their peers could have changed, their boss could have changed, the board composition could have changed.

[00:09:10] And when other leaders change. It changes whether those successors would be successful under or in collaboration with those other leaders. So if their key colleagues changed, they may not be as effective. as a leader because the dynamics might be different in the team. If they're going to have a new boss when they get into that role, they may not be able to be as successful working for that individual as the person who was initially going to be their boss when the charts and tables were made.

[00:09:45] So succession planning is a system. You may not need somebody who has exactly the same skills. They may not work as well with the people involved. That is a succession risk that we don't design for. What were the conditions that surrounded why we thought that person would be a good candidate when we put them on the chart?

[00:10:06] Those are the conversations we need to be having more of. And the second broader dynamic that we need to take into perspective, which is the most frequent reason that the people we thought had the potential and were on those charts don't end up in that role, or end up in that role and don't succeed as we thought they might, is that the business conditions have changed.

[00:10:30] The business conditions have fundamentally changed from what you thought they were going to be when you first did the succession planning. And the And that is almost constant. The speed at which technology is changing, now the introduction of AI, the speed at which your competitors are evolving, or new ones are coming on the scene, and then of course there's the broader societal impacts of our political systems, environmental crises, now we've learned there can even be pandemics that can happen.

[00:10:59] All of that changes over time. What it takes to lead and not everybody is a good leader for every situation. The people who might be great at keeping you on the path that you are on are not necessarily the same leaders who are going to help you dig out of a really complex situation that your business is in.

[00:11:20] They may not be the same leaders who will help you innovate. They may not be the same leaders who are going to be good when you need to downsize rapidly. Takes different leaders. We used to refer to them as archetypes. It may take different types archetypal leaders to be successful in those different circumstances, but that's not usually how we look at succession planning.

[00:11:43] We look at it at that moment in time, not what your future scenarios may be, including future scenarios that you can't even imagine. So what do we do? Do we just throw out succession and say it's a total waste? No, that's not the answer either because that's not planful, that's not strategic, and also it doesn't allow you to think about the people who you should be investing in their development now so that you have more optionality going forward and to ensure that your business can grow because leaders can become a bottleneck to your growth.

[00:12:18] So what we do is we need to do succession in a way that is thoughtful and takes into consideration all the insights that people have about those leaders today, which is a major part of how the process is often run in today's day and age. But we also need to design to rule out bias. And the only way we can rule out bias unless we diversify the people who are in that room making the decisions, which is a goal as well, is that we use data.

[00:12:50] And you use data that really looks at someone's leadership capability. Data that includes input from that person's team, the people they lead, in a way that is safe and anonymous and cannot be attributed back to those individuals or you'll never get the real truth. We build succession planning in a way That's more like scenario planning.

[00:13:11] It's like good business strategy. Anyway, we think about who we want to be as an organization where we need to take the function or the department of the division or the region in the future. And then we go through what scenarios that person would thrive at. If conditions got better, stayed the same or got worse.

[00:13:33] What type of leader are they? Are they the build? The sustain, the shrink, the reinvent type. We think about what archetypal leader they may be and are demonstrating based on what we know of them. And we think about how we build them to have as much versatility as possible. Because the same way we can't predict the future and what will change means we have to prepare leaders to be as versatile

[00:14:05] and as adaptable as possible so that they can work for different types of leaders and collaborate with different types of colleagues, that they can manage teams that will evolve and change and that they are as comfortable as possible being thrown into situations that are They weren't prepared for, or that they hadn't experienced before, or even if they thought they'd experienced before, they could bring a fresh perspective and a curious mindset to looking at it as if it was totally new.

[00:14:41] Those are the ways that we need to build leaders. And it also takes, like all leadership does, looking at ourselves. In what ways have we built the systems? to keep putting people like us in them? In what ways do we have feelings about our own ability to be replaced that puts flaws into the process? What about if we asked ourselves, what is it that someone else could bring to this team that I can't?

[00:15:16] And to feel incredibly proud to go and look for those people because none of us can bring a situation everything it needs. And what if we asked more questions? What if we asked people what they really wanted and let them tell us the truth so that we could architect jobs that were just right for them so that we and the organization can get their best?

[00:15:44] Wouldn't that be amazing? And also, wouldn't it be amazing if we didn't force people into people management roles of greater and greater levels of responsibility who did not actually love to manage people? Which is often what succession planning looks like, is that we move people into these larger and larger people management roles.

[00:16:03] Let's not have that be something that determines someone's future potential. It's not good for anybody. Let's have it be that they desire to lead, and let's design from there. Thanks for joining today's episode of Let's Talk People.

[00:16:24] For more info and insights, visit and find me, Emily Frieze-Kemeny on LinkedIn and Instagram. If you're enjoying the show, please follow, share on social and leave a rating or review in your podcast app. It helps other listeners to discover us. Well, that's a wrap friends until next time when we come together to talk people.

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