The late, great industrialist Sir John Harvey-Jones said: “Planning is an unnatural process; it is much more fun to do something. The nicest thing about not planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise, rather than being preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
This chimes with one or two seminal experiences in my life and career. As we all know, in the heat and dust of getting on with it, whatever it may be, it is very easy indeed to forget about planning and then regret it later.
In the here and now of transition, firefighting and setting off multiple projects and programmes, time for planning is at a premium. In particular, I bet time for succession planning is squeezed even harder.
Chief executives I talk to are often concerned about the lack of strength in depth in their organisations. They are very worried that they lack sufficient “ready now” candidates to replace planned and unplanned losses of key clinical and managerial leaders.
As a result, continuity and future performance are at risk. While succession planning is a bit of a moving target, there is great value in systematically gearing up to have your people ready and fit for the future. Making succession planning a must-do activity will enhance continuity, build confidence and loyalty and create capacity for coping well with the future.
At a time when we all need to go beyond the ordinary there is no room for insufficient or ineffective leadership and management capacity. There are massive risks to organisational stability ahead, but there are greater risks inherent in reining back aspirations, settling for longer, easier deadlines, and hiring unproven talent.
We are all skippering ships that need to sail much better than ever before. Without the right quality of leadership from the front line to the board, some of us could be drifting on the tide. This rarely happens because the overall strategy is poor or for the lack of a sound implementation plan. Usually it boils down to there being a mismatch between leadership and management capacity and the scale of the task at hand.
Leadership development programmes can be very helpful and undoubtedly stimulate people to become better, but they seldom address the leadership dynamics of whole organisations, which is what matters most. Taking time to plan for succession to a granular level is a major step on the road to extraordinary performance.
This involves asking hard questions, like who has the skills to drive initiatives? Can these people be released from their regular jobs? What risks are we prepared to take to stretch people? Above all, will those chosen to take on pivotal roles be up to the job?
I know from personal experience that it is often easier to make some very dangerous assumptions. These include allowing more time for people to develop and as a result accepting a gentler pace or aiming at less ambitious targets. But this is fatal if the people concerned are in the wrong job in the first place.
Another mistake is to assume that the best performers only exist at the top. Consequently, more and more tasks are loaded onto the top team, stretching an overburdened bunch of people, already fully occupied in setting a direction, delivering short term results and managing significant corporate functions.
It is also dangerous to assume that imported leadership provides instant capacity. This can often work and in fact is usually necessary in turnaround situations. But even in these circumstances, there is a limit to the number of people that can be assimilated successfully. Integration takes time and if you overdo this you have to watch out for disenchanting and disenfranchising loyal people, who see their career prospects compromised.
It can be daunting and perhaps, for some, too long term or distracting, but it is fundamentally important for boards and executive teams to have the discipline to ruthlessly plan for the next generation of leaders. We all have promising people two or three levels down in the organisation that we don’t know about and finding them adds to collective strength.
We probably all also have a number of favourites to whom we turn for challenging projects. Probing beyond the dazzling impressions made by these talented individuals and doggedly searching far and wide for people who might be tested will almost certainly reveal some uncut diamonds.
Prioritise succession planning now – it might just make the difference in going from good to great.