Not long ago, I wrote an Introduction to Talent Management post that put that topic in the context of the engineering organization. I followed that up by looking at the question of What’s the Importance of Employee Alignment in Engineering? Today I’d like to delve into a issues that is directly related to engineering executives: succession management. Just to get a baseline, here’s what is in the definition from the wikipedia entry where it and succession planning are closely tied.

Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key leadership positions in the company. Succession planning increases the availability of experienced and capable employees that are prepared to assume these roles as they become available. Taken narrowly, “replacement planning” for key roles is the heart of succession planning. Effective succession or talent-pool management concerns itself with building a series of feeder groups up and down the entire leadership pipeline or progression (Charan, Drotter, Noel, 2001). In contrast, replacement planning is focused narrowly on identifying specific back-up candidates for given senior management positions. For the most part position-driven replacement planning (often referred to as the “truck scenario”) is a forecast, which research indicates does not have substantial impact on outcomes.

Fundamental to the succession-management process is an underlying philosophy that argues that top talent in the corporation must be managed for the greater good of the enterprise. Merck and other companies argue that a “talent mindset” must be part of the leadership culture for these practices to be effective.

While many see this sort of effort as a ‘backup plan’ if someone leaves the organization, it actually has a lot more to do with sustainability of an organization’s performance. In fact, Mollie Lombardi over at the Aberdeen Group recently conducted some research that directly correlates measured performance of organizations with the application of succession management practices. Here’s a quick excerpt from a blog post titled Succession Management is all about Sustainability that she wrote from the research.

While, in the past, succession may have been more of a contingency system to overcome unexpected calamities, it has now become a means of building and correctly placing talent to meet a future vision. More than anything else, respondents are focused on building workforce planning capabilities. Not only that, but they know that to survive they will need to learn how to identify high-potentials and do it earlier. This will allow them to juxtapose their current workforce skills against that future state and build a road map to fill that gap. And in order to overcome shortages of resources, the Best-in-Class realize that they can’t let any potential leaders slip under their nose. They are committed to sharing talent across the enterprise, or in other words breaking down the siloes that can so often cause teams and departments to “hoard” their talent so they can start viewing it as a global resource.

How is this related to engineering? Many CEOs have realized that the cost cutting initiatives that kept them in business during the recession won’t drive profitable growth during the recovery. Those executives have shifted their emphasis to engineering innovative products to drive that growth instead. You can find more details on that in the engineering-matters post titled The CEO’s Recovery Directive to Engineering. But the critical point here is that the continuity of that product pipeline is critical to the success of the company. And that can’t happen without good leadership. Sudden changes in management without a capable replacement can easily wreak havoc on the productivity on the engineering organization. Succession management is critical to making sure that when an engineering leader moves on, the organization and the product pipeline doesn’t fall apart.

So what do you do about it? Fundamentally, it gets back to both competency management (wikipedia) and alignment, which gets back to the question of What’s the Importance of Employee Alignment in Engineering? I suspect the overwhelming objection here is that there simply isn’t enough time for this sort of effort. But if executives truly want continuity from a product pipeline perspective, they’ll need to invest the time and more.

Time to sound off. What are your thoughts? Can you provide any good or bad examples of succession management? What other objections are there to this effort? Chime in and let me know your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.