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When Gaps in Succession Planning Turn into Chasms

When we are asked to conduct a search, more often than not, it is the result of a gap in a succession plan. Often, the situation is inescapable and, hopefully, due to the fact that our client’s growth is outstripping their ability to fill all of the gaps in the organizational chart through its own talent pool.  Recently, however, we are seeing more systemic problems – ones that are hindering the development of talented pre-executives into senior leaders capable of managing a set of broad strategic responsibilities.

Much can be attributed to the downturn in the economy as organizations are asking all employees to take on more responsibility in order to drive down costs.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the senior executive ranks where spans of control have grown significantly.  A byproduct of this drive for efficiency is that the gaps in responsibility between management levels are growing so wide that it becomes more and more challenging to promote from within.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when lower levels of management are asked to do more, they generally assume responsibility for more of the work of their subordinates.  On the other hand, when senior executives are asked to do more, it is related to the tasks of their peers.  Thus, the mid-manager is doing more with less by becoming more tactical and hands-on, while his or her senior-level boss is doing more with less by going broader and more strategic; this is not exactly an ideal scenario for effective succession planning.

Just to make things a little more interesting, the retirement of waves of Baby Boomer senior leaders is still simmering on the backburner.  Back in the 2007 to early 2008 timeframe, when I asked a top human resources executive what was keeping her or him up at night, a common response would be concerns over the fact that half their management team members were retirement-eligible and could conceivably give notice at any time.  This remains a long-term challenge for companies.  While it’s been obscured by the troubles presented by the recession and subsequent weak recovery, it has by no means gone away.

This conflagration of talent management and economic concerns puts organizations, and particularly their human resources leadership, in a bind.  Developing internal successors requires financial investment and, given the continuing emphasis on improving the bottom line, most organizations are not likely to deploy any significant resources against this challenge at the moment.  It also takes time and requires a planning horizon that takes succession planning off the agenda, or at least pushes it down the priority list, during periods of uncertainty like the one most companies currently face.

While I don’t have an answer, I do believe companies need to keep the question of succession top of mind.  When the War for Talent eventually heats up again, you don’t want to find that your company is woefully short of ammunition.

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