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The 5 Biggest Succession Planning Mistakes



Succession planning, done well, creates brilliant competitive advantage. Poorly executed, at best it’s a waste of time, and often creates serious havoc on long term performance.

All words I’ve heard in the last 15 days: “Oh, we’re too small to need a formal process.” “Our business is moving so fast we don’t have time for that.” “We’re baby boomers and we don’t know how”(trust me, I would never have included this one until I heard it TWICE this week from different companies looking for help). And the scariest of all, “We’re a family owned-business so the decision is obvious.”

1. Talking People Before Priorities

Before you can decide WHO you need to be sure on WHAT. Think future vision and the competencies that will make that possible. Write them down. Then map your people against those possibilities. Choosing people for tomorrow based exclusively on today’s performance will slow you down.

2. Cloning

What often passes for executive presence is a desired mold. Be careful. Sure you want poise, effective communication, and a tidy together look, but the quirky challenger may just what you need to take your strategy to the next level. Too many like minds lead to uninspired strategy.

3. Letting Diversity Trump Common Sense

If you complete your 9 box succession planning grid and it’s all balding white guys with a dry sense of humor in box 9 you clearly have a problem. If it’s a perception problem. by all means challenge one another and make it right.

However, I often find this is less of an issue of discrimination at the succession table, than a problem with hiring and focused leadership development down the line. You can’t make anyone ready for the next level by talking yourselves into it or putting diversity multipliers on executive compensation.

The worse thing you can do is pad your “grid” by sliding diverse candidates into blocks where they don’t belong. Sure, identify opportunities for accelerated growth to make up for lost time. But NEVER promote an unqualified person for diversity reasons. You hurt them, your business, and weaken your diversity strategy.

4. False Consensus

You know you have a true box 9, high potential when every head at the table is chiming in with a resounding “Yes!”

A succession planning conversation without conflict is useless. The very best talent reviews involve robust discussion and lively debate which leads to important next steps (e.g. “You’ve got to know my guy better;” “She needs a stretch assignment.”) If I support your guy so you support mine, the business loses.

5. Ignoring the Plan

The worst succession planning sin of all is going through the motions, and then reverting to the old patterns “just this time” when it comes to promotion. Trust me, they next thing on everyone’s mind the next time you want to hold such a meeting is “Why bother?”

Don’t short change your talent strategy. The right people, at the right place, at the right time, will change the game. Be sure you’re prepared.

If you’re struggling with succession planning, I can help. I’ve facilitated hundreds of succession planning discussions over the years from the executive level, through merger integration, and at the frontline. Succession planning is worth doing well. Please contact me.

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