An entire industry has sprung up around succession planning, with authors, experts, and consultants all claiming they have the answers to the difficult questions of identifying and grooming candidates to take over high-profile positions. Recent news headlines have demonstrated the importance of succession planning, as marquee companies struggle to identify new leaders after the sudden departure of the old vanguard. While all this is enough to make many an executive's head spin, it is worthwhile to ask whether succession planning really has to be so hard.
Like many worthwhile management concepts, succession planning starts with a conceptually simple question that every leader should be asking: if I disappeared tomorrow, who would take my place? Ask one of your peers this question, and you'll likely get a confused look for a few second, then perhaps that person will start rattling off a couple of names and associated commentary that might go something like this:
"Well, Jill would be the obvious choice since we've worked so closely together and she really ‘gets' my vision for the company, but she just doesn't have the operational experience right now. Frank really knows how to make ops work and has the numbers background, so maybe he would be the right person... but he‘s just awful at sales, and we all know how important sales is to this position. Now Janet really knows sales..."
Without a raft of consultants, and nary a paragraph of the latest management treatise on the nuances of succession planning, this simple question has already started the planning process in earnest. For the more creative types, you can supply a reason for their sudden disappearance, ranging from bus accidents (why do these types of conversations always involve buses?) to alien abductions. However, the point is that the person must assume they are no longer in any capacity to influence the organization and must choose a replacement from available talent. Asking "who would take my place" forces you to look at potential candidates and then assess their strengths and weaknesses as related to filling your newly vacant shoes. It makes a somewhat amorphous concept deeply and immediately personal, and that is its magic.
From this list of names, it becomes relatively easy to identify perceived weaknesses that would prevent each person from filling the position. If an otherwise capable candidate would be unable to fill a role due to a lack of specific experience, it becomes a relatively easy exercise to develop a plan to help them build that experience. If the answer to "who would take my place" is legitimately "no one," then obviously succession planning has been overlooked for too long, and the position in question has a genuine risk of not being filled without resorting to outside recruiting, certainly not the fastest or easiest option to invoke without prior planning should a crisis arise. In either case, you are left with identified development needs for existing staff, some excellent motivation to begin grooming candidates at lower levels, or strong motivation to start a well-managed search for someone who could be groomed to fill a key role.
Clearly, you don't need complicated databases, management theory, or outside help to start this process. Asking "who would take my place" gives you all the information you need to start the more detailed aspects of succession planning and is a question you should ask at least quarterly of your key personnel to ensure that you will not be left in a dangerous position should one of them suddenly depart due to injury, scandal, buses driven by aliens, or anything in between.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.