Succession Planning Doesn't Work: Just Ask Mubarak and Gadhafi

Aren't you amazed that senior executives of major companies still believe that succession planning works! I know I am. From the looks on the faces of Hosni Mubarak and Colonel Gadhafi during their last televised rants to their street side citizens, I can tell they are surprised their sons won't be succeeding them in the family business.

Why is it we (meaning just about every large company) aren't able to develop and plan our successors any better than the average tinpot Middle East dictator? Just when we think we are invincible C-Suite occupants, along comes a shareholder putsch and we and the rest of our carefully developed team are out on our collective keesters. Or, we implement a major culture shift throughout our multi-national organization and find the Board and most of our employees are unhappy with our profit results because some start-up has crushed us with a $2 app, with the same result as in the shareholder putsch.

I'm hoping that, at the very least, what the last few weeks have demonstrated conclusively is that our environment always moves much faster than our planning processes. Maybe forty or fifty years ago we could plan successfully for what the world was going to look like five years down the road. But now just ask anyone holding Lehman Brothers or Nokia shares how they feel about their confidence in predicting the future, or any of Mr. Mubarak's in-laws.

Succession planning, or as it should be better described, replacement planning, is about static futures in which organization charts don't change, talented people are lining up to step into your tough to fill leadership roles, and no one is developing game-changing technology that will wipe out your business proposition while you are adding yet another section to your black binder titled "Succession Plan-2011.

Does anyone out there reading this still have the same organization chart they had in 2009? Are you selling technology that hasn't been affected by cell phone technology (if you think not please stop reading as this rant isn't going to help you). Where are the talented people who are going to innovate you and the rest of the bureaucracy to the safety of the next island? Why is it that talent and your place on the promotion list often are inversely proportional?

In his ground breaking books, Blink and Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell gives us some insights into why succession planning doesn't work. He points out that corporate planning cultures that have given us decision by spreadsheet, and I believe these highly structured models have also resulted in making decisions around leadership and talent using spreadsheets and computer software. Gladwell describes ground breaking research into how the human brain makes decisions that run counter to the list the criteria models. Our brain filters huge amounts of apparently disconnected information and offers us intuitive insights into effective decisions. We used to call this gut instinct and we can still see it demonstrated in some of our business leaders when they make a gutsy call to not pick the next corporate leader from the pile of names found in the corporate succession plan or to remove someone who has been placed in the C-Suite and just isn't cutting it, before the revolution begins.

You can imagine, though, the howls of favouritism and unprofessionalism to be heard from the bureaucrats who operate the complex and cost-intensive sucession planning processes of our corporations. If we catch them on YouTube they might look a lot like some Middle East leaders we have seen lately.

Views: 266

Comment by Suresh on February 23, 2011 at 9:04pm

Interesting read..


Comment by Mark Bregman on February 24, 2011 at 2:46pm
Succession planning does work, and is essential to companies moving forward and executives moving up.  See my blog:  Forgive the sports metaphors - I wrote it to coincide with Spring Training in baseball.
Comment by Harvey Daniels on February 24, 2011 at 5:59pm
How about an opinion "in the middle:" Succession planning MIGHT work, provided it's developed and implemented in an environment that honestly fosters respect and retention of its employees.
Comment by Mark Bregman on February 24, 2011 at 6:04pm
Harvey:  Yes, but... it will work when companies hire, promote, retain and evaluate people based on clear performance objectives.  Future objectives for the next position up CAN be defined so that successorship can be planned in advance, based on the "bench" player's capabilities.  Don't you think?
Comment by Harvey Daniels on February 24, 2011 at 7:19pm
I agree, Mark.  I must have been in "Twitter" mode, thinking I was limited to 140 characters, so I left that part out.  Seriously, to expand on your point, I believe that there must be a clear, well defined set of objectives, and that for each objective that's defined, there must be a clear set of standards, such as "Astronomical, Average, or Slouch," (or perhaps more elegant labels can be used), with enough quantification to be measured.  Thanks for allowing the clarification.
Comment by Kim Bechtel on February 24, 2011 at 7:36pm

Thanks for the comments Harvey and Mark. I am still of the belief that by the time you guys fix all the problems with the plan the world the plan was designed to fit into is going to be gone. Succession management is a much better solution, build talent pools of the types you need to sustain an effective organization, creative talent, leadership talent, connector talent, operational talent. Constantly assess whether or not you have sufficient types of talent and then move people where they need to be. Much less hierarchical and tied to organization charts.

Comment by Harvey Daniels on February 24, 2011 at 7:56pm

You make a lot of sense, Kim.  Thanks.

By the way, speaking of fixing "all the problems with the plan," everything is dynamic, not static, so when you think you've reached "the end," you really haven't.  Have you ever seen that carnival attraction where you have to hit all the "rodent heads" down with a mallet so that none are sticking up?  Just when you think you've got them all down, up pops another.


Thanks again.


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