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Succession Planning

Date: Jan 7, 2016

Making a succession plan can be a daunting task.  None of us will be in our current work roles for ever but it is not always easy to face up to that fact.  Rather like making a personal will, too many of us keep postponing it but in both cases we risk leaving it too late and we may instead end up leaving a terrible mess behind for others to sort out.  With plenty of urgent challenges to deal with each day there is always an excuse to delay starting on a plan until another day.

Is planning for my successor something I need to think about?

In a highly skilled and strongly competitive field such as intellectual property protection it is particularly important to put a succession plan in place for each business critical position.  The sooner managers or partners tackle this particular challenge the better the outcome is likely to be for all concerned.

Rushing any job brings the risk of mistakes and recruitment is no exception. Plans that are carefully considered, patiently constructed, given time to evolve and then methodically implemented are more likely to be effective than a last minute panic when, for whatever reason, the position becomes vacant.  

Most of us will have some idea of what we want to do next in our career or when we plan to simply call it a day and retire.  The worst way to manage that transition is to keep it secret, make no plans to help our organisation cope with the change and spring the news of our imminent departure on unsuspecting colleagues at the last minute.

Organisations that are well managed will insist that all managers have prepared such a plan and will ensure it remains current.  The handover from one leader to the next is always a challenging time and failing to plan and manage the process smoothly adds greatly to the risk of problems arising for the team that is directly affected and for the wider organisation as well as its clients.  

But won’t such a plan help to make me expendable?

Some managers wrongly imagine that compiling a succession plan will help to make them dispensable but the reality is that it is more likely to reflect positively upon them by demonstrating their efficiency and vision, highlighting that they are a team player who has concern for the continued well-being of the business.  Ensuring a smooth handover to a competent successor is something that a manager can be just as proud of as achieving a good performance whilst he or she is in situ.  

A good succession plan will be taking a long-term view as well as providing the basis for more immediate action if there is an unexpected development in the shorter term.  The services of a manager may suddenly become unavailable to the employing organisation for many different reasons, ranging from resignation or dismissal through to medical reasons or maybe even a big lottery win!

So how do I start?

A comprehensive plan will begin by outlining the main issues that a future postholder can expect to face and will use these to help formulate a detailed description of the sort of individual and the skillset that will be required to meet these challenges in the future.  The plan will need to be aligned with the overall strategy for the organisation and the more specific goals for the IP team.
The process should then involve the assessment of existing staff.  Hopefully the organisation will have a formal appraisal and development process in operation for all staff and this (along with the associated discussions that form a vital part of such a programme) will have helped both to identify strong performers who may be suited for further advancement and provided an employee with the opportunity to flag to their manager their longer term career goals and aspirations.

If no employee currently presents as a suitable candidate then you will need to consider how best to achieve a better alignment between the human capital currently available to you and the future needs of the organisation.  Consideration should be given to whether a properly tailored programme of development, involving formal training, mentoring and tailored work experience might be capable of transforming an existing colleague into a potential contender.

Knowledge transfer should already be part of the agenda for developing the staff in an organisation and they should always be encouraged to show initiative and appropriate leadership relevant for their level but in circumstances where it is desired to nurture a particular individual for promotion a more specific and detailed plan is necessary.  It needs to be focused on filling any deficiencies in qualifications, knowledge, behaviours or experience and it should be drawn up in conjunction with the individual concerned to ensure there is full understanding and commitment by them.

If you can make internal succession work then that is likely to help boost team morale although there is always the possibility that someone will resent working under a former colleague or believe they were better suited for the promotion.  It may also enhance your organisation’s reputation and benefit your future recruitment for other positions within the team because you will have demonstrated that you genuinely deliver career advancement opportunities.  Developing an internal successor is not a quick and easy fix but it can be immensely satisfying experience for all concerned.

It may not always work out as you had hoped

The stretching of an employee as part of a development programme will normally benefit the individual concerned, even if eventually they are not considered suited for future promotion to the more senior role. It should immediately increase their value to the organisation and boost their personal skillset (and perhaps their remuneration too), for example, by preparing them to more effectively deputise for their manager during times of temporary absence.

It is also possible that a taste of what the more senior role involves may lead to a potential candidate deciding that it is not something they would like to take on permanently.  If so, it is valuable for the organisation (and the individual concerned) to learn this beforehand rather than after an unsuccessful promotion has been made.  In an extreme case a promoted individual who finds their new job is not what they had expected, may end up resigning (with all the disruption and expense that will entail for the organisation) if they fear losing face by admitting it is not working out for them.

Conversely, imagine the frustration if you overlook to provide someone with the right opportunities to grow or to test themselves with new challenges and that causes them to defect to a more senior position in a competitor organisation.  If they demonstrate that they always had the capacity to take on such a role you will be kicking yourself for overlooking to utilise them yourself.

Widen your horizon

Even if you believe that you have an internal candidate who is ideal, good succession planning will normally require you to also look beyond your present team.   The candidate you have identified may not look so great once you take an objective look externally.  There is also the small risk that, for any of the reasons mentioned above, they may become unavailable to you before you are ready to implement the succession plan.  

Looking beyond the existing staff also provides an opportunity to improve diversity within the team and help drive change management.  It may be a missed opportunity for an organisation to grow and improve if it unconsciously seeks a replacement that is simply as close as possible to the predecessor.  An employer should apply the same equal opportunity principles to succession planning as it does to all recruitment and promotions.

When recruiting, employers often choose to interview both internal and external candidates to provide a valid benchmark for comparison.  Applying this principle to the succession planning process can be more of a challenge but it is possible to keep an eye on a potential external candidate to see how they are developing and of course modern communications technology and social media make it easier than ever to discreetly investigate someone’s track record.

Keep the plan up to date

A succession plan will need to be reviewed regularly to ensure it is kept current and that it is ready for any contingency that might arise.  The overall business strategy and the personal circumstances of each of the individuals relevant to the plan will be constantly evolving.  A neglected plan will quickly lose its relevance and value.

A good plan may continue beyond the appointment date

An ongoing mentoring relationship between the new appointment and their predecessor may be desirable, particularly if the departing employee is a ‘good leaver’ (for example, a retiring manager who has performed well).  It is more likely to arise naturally if the two individuals know each other well (for example, because the new manager was an internal promotion).  This type of relationship can prove to be very helpful for on-boarding the incoming manager but it should be recognised that it also brings the risk of inhibiting (or at least postponing) changes that the ‘new broom’ might otherwise bring to established procedures or to the team culture.  Senior management need to be alert to this risk and encourage changes that enhance team performance or eliminate any deficiencies that existed under the previous manager.

If circumstances and budget – and the size of the office! – permit it then there may be positive benefits from having the new manager and their predecessor work physically alongside one another for a short handover period.  This can be particularly beneficial if the new hire is from outside the organisation, where an experienced hand can help them to become familiar with the specific culture and systems that make all organisations unique.

Metrics matter

Organisations should also endeavour to measure the effectiveness of their succession planning and development activity.  An objective assessment of how well they are doing is essential if they are to achieve high standards and continually improve their performance in this key business activity.  At its most basic this might simply involve ensuring 100% of key positions have such a plan in place and that they are updated at agreed intervals.  It is also straightforward to log the percentage of those positions that are filled internally as opposed to externally and to note the trend over time.  More sophisticated systems might even seek to capture data relating to billing levels or other readily measured aspects of the business activity.

Consider seeking external assistance

With all of the other demands that a busy manager faces it is not surprising that many struggle to make time for succession planning.  It is not just Scouts who need to be prepared so consider seeking help with this important subject.  Implementation matters even more than the plan itself and that will place an additional burden on already stretched management.  

At Marlow IP Recruitment we have considerable experience in succession planning and we will be pleased to provide you with the support you require for any aspect of the process.  We recommend that you discuss your potential needs with us at an early stage and not simply wait until you need to urgently recruit to fill an imminent vacancy.

Bob Boad
Associate Director, Marlow IP Recruitment


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