Building Your Bench of Organizational Talent

Picture of a bench in nature

Given the importance of a strong and stable leadership team, it’s surprising that just 35 percent of organizations engage in regular succession planning. A little planning up front goes a long way in ensuring you have a strong “rough draft” for succession and a plan to ensure a bench of high-quality talent into the future.

First, let’s define succession planning. Most teams can provide short-term coverage (vacation, short-term disability, family leave) but might not have the right long-term person for the role. We are defining succession planning as a future-focused exercise in identifying the knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform certain functions and developing plans for individuals to potentially perform those functions in the future.

In nature, bees take succession planning into their own hands, er, feet. The queen bee is the only bee capable of laying fertilized eggs. Without a functioning queen, the hive will die as no new bees are available to replace aging ones. When bees notice a lack of leadership or signs of aging in the queenshe isn’t laying eggs as efficiently or as well as she has in the pastthey take action. The observant bees secretly create queen incubators and begin cultivating a new leader to replace the existing queen. When a new queen hatches, she and the existing queen battle to the death for control of the hive.

We’re fortunate this dynamic doesn’t play out quite the same way in modern-day organizations. But, even if it’s not a fight to the death, it’s not always pretty. Unplanned leadership transitions can result in internal jockeying for power, lack of organizational direction, or the hasty placement of someone who may not be ready for the role. This is distracting for employees and disruptive to the organization’s strategy and operations.

So, what can we do? Proactive succession planning is invaluable and particularly effective when paired with another talent management process, like evaluating performance, promoting individuals, or constructing career development plans.

1. Identify the roles to plan for.

Most organizations focus on the top leader and leadership team, but other strategic roles should be part of this plan, even if they don’t sit at the top of the organizational chart. Identifying roles that meet specific criteria (for example, strategic roles which are difficult to fill and require extensive onboarding time) is a fair start.

2. Analyze the bench strength for that role.

When looking at internal candidates, consider:

  • Direct reports
  • Non-direct reports who work closely with the role
  • Adjacent peers
  • Those who have expressed interest in this career path

Level data, role data, performance data, and organizational network analysis can structure the pool of potential successors, and skills data can inform readiness. While most leaders and HR partners can identify this pool from memory, data provides an additional layer of equity and bias elimination that can expand leaders’ mindsets around whom they might consider.

You may not have internal candidates who are close to being ready for the role being discussed. It’s still worthwhile to create the development plans for those internal individuals, but, as you have new role openings, consider whether there’s an opportunity to bring in a candidate who could be a potential successor.

3. Enable development plans.

For your most viable candidates, identify the growth experiences that would ready them for the role. Be specific. Instead of saying “has only handled a narrow scope,” be clear about “what good would look like”: a more complex business environment, larger cross-functional teams, accountability for a major organizational outcome? Share those plans for growth with that person and work with them to find opportunities that help them gain those experiences.

At Georgetown, we emphasize the development of talent in our Master’s in Human Resources Management program, particularly in our Strategic Human Capital Development course. Our program helps leaders think about strategic workforce questions, blending academic study with hands-on application to create actionable solutions like the one above.

While this can be a lengthy process, it doesn’t have to be! Even a light version of the above:

  • Allows you to take early action around potential gaps in your bench
  • Provides emerging leaders with clear direction and development plans

These modest steps help you create a win-win, long-term approach toward talent development.

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