Rethinking Succession Planning

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Succession management planning can hit roadblocks for a number of reasons: industry disruption and the need to predict an uncertain future, unconscious bias that can cloud talent decisions, and challenges unique to managing global talent pools.

Avoiding talent-building barriers and successfully planning for the future requires moving beyond the status quo and creating viable and agile systems, policies and practices, explained speakers at a recent conference hosted by The Conference Board.

“We really should be running succession management as if we are producing a product because, at the end of the day, we are producing a product that needs to come off the end of a production line and be delivered to someone at a certain period of time,” said Marc Effron, president of The Talent Strategy Group, to attendees at the Oct. 16, 2012, succession management conference here.

During the event, speakers highlighted unique succession planning challenges their organizations grapple with and steps they’re taking to address the new talent management reality.

Challenge: Defining Future Roles

Joseph Garbus, vice president of organization capability at The New York Times Co., noted that the company’s workforce has been cut by roughly two-thirds since 2008, leaving “shrinking opportunities” for advancement and big succession management implications. As the company “rebalances,” Garbus said The Times has tried to “double down on the basics” when it comes to succession planning and performance management. That includes “getting the language down, getting the processes routinized,” much like Effron’s manufacturing analogy.

It’s really about “getting those conversations to be deeper and more meaningful,” Garbus said, noting that the company also uses tools like the 9-box model, a graph that ranks individual performance and potential, to help determine leaders’ readiness to advance in the talent pipeline.

One major challenge, he said, is defining critical present and future roles, particularly as The Times shifts from advertising to a consumer-based business model that derives most of its revenue from subscriptions and digital content. “The key is to be able to recast talent and answer the question, ‘If these folks are successors, these folks have potential for what?’” he said.

Need for Speed Versus Accuracy

Matthew Breitfelder, managing director of human resources for money management firm BlackRock, is also in an industry experiencing profound change. He said the “tension between speed and accuracy” is what keeps him up at night.

BlackRock has discovered that succession planning must be “much more dynamic, much more real-time,” he said. As such, its portfolio of people should be updated at least quarterly, rather than annually. When it comes to what the future holds, it’s critical for HR and others making talent decisions to be tightly aligned with strategy teams.

“We don’t have to understand it in depth, but we need to understand the contours of it and what the likely shifts in [our] business are,” Breitfelder said.

Danger: Unconscious Bias Ahead

A key way to increase diversity in the pipeline is to reduce bias. Unconscious bias can taint hiring decisions, talent reviews, and high potential selection, as well as the overall process of “marching people through the pipeline and developing talent,” said Andrea Lewis, Ph.D., chief diversity and inclusion officer for global defense firm BAE Systems Inc.

One way to mitigate such bias is by providing targeted intervention to talent management decision makers. BAE partnered with corporate consulting firm Cook Ross Inc. to figure out a more structured and systematic way to root out bias in its talent processes. The company used to select participants for its emerging leaders program through manager nomination, but the program was viewed as “subjective and inconsistent” and the company realized that “a lot of bias was getting in the way,” Lewis noted.

During calibration discussions, the company worked to ensure that it was assessing potential “and not preference through our own lenses,” and achieved a diverse representation of participants while ensuring high potential for leadership, Lewis added. 

The result: The company’s diversity and inclusion strategy and training now includes unconscious bias training—an enterprise-wide training requirement for all leaders by 2013. 

Leslie Traub, chief consulting officer and chairman of the board at Cook Ross, said tools like the Implicit Association Test, a free online assessment tool offered by Harvard University’s Project Implicit, can help better understand potential bias. Such biases can affect views on everything from ethnic groups, older and younger generations, working mothers and people working remotely.

“It’s important for us to be change agents in this field,” Traub said.

Rethinking Global Strategies

With increased globalization, it is key to “start with a global hat and to keep the global hat on,” said Nisha Advani, Ph.D., senior principal of global talent management and development for Genentech-Roche’s Medicines Group. Advani offered these tips when it comes to getting the right people, the right plan and the right fit for global talent:

  • Make sure there’s global and functional representation of critical stakeholders in decision-making. Involving procurement early enables a disciplined approach around the request for the proposal process and review of important business factors.
  • Plan the timeline accurately, setting clear expectations and allowing extra time for global complexities. Maintain a learning mindset and be flexible. You may learn something from colleagues and vendors that can enhance the final solution, Advani said.
  • Be clear about selection criteria—both what’s essential and what’s desired. Assign weights and use rigor around psychometrics and essential cultural fit factors, including non-quantitative ones.

Probing Individual Aspirations

Global talent shouldn’t be treated as static “lists and big pools,” Advani said. During talent reviews, Genentech-Roche works hard to assess employee aspirations, particularly to avoid situations where managers might decide to move someone who might not want to move.

“We’re really trying to get closer to the employee’s aspirations and to keep track of that,” Advani said. For example, she said some people might be interested in working in Western Europe but not an emerging market; others might have children in school and are not be willing to move in the next three years, but they are still considered global talent.

Jessica Tolle, vice president of talent management and development for PepsiCo, said her company takes a similar approach. In 2012, PepsiCo implemented “candid career conversations,” in which employees fill out online profiles about their aspirations, experiences and critical experience they think they need to have to advance in the company. The manager then offers his or her perspective.

“That is a big culture change for us,” Tolle said. “Before, it was just the manager assuming that someone wanted to do this. Now, we’re trying to create more transparency around what the person wants.”