August 25, 2021

Building a Strong Executive Team: Succession Planning & Tackling the Bus Problem

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This is part six of our Building a Strong Executive Team series. To start at the beginning, click here.

If one of your executives were to suddenly leave, or worst-case scenario, get hit by a bus, do you have someone else that could easily take over for them? If not, your organization likely has major succession planning problems. Many companies struggle with this “bus problem.” Executives leave without providing much notice, and no one knows who should take their place. Part of building a strong executive team is ensuring that you have a plan for replacing your executives once they’re ready to leave the organization.

Table of contents

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is the process of training employees on the knowledge they’ll need to take over for the person they report to, whether it’s a manager or executive. The average person will change jobs twelve times over the course of their career, meaning across a 47-year working period (18 to 65), they stay in each job for less than 4 years. Since job changes are such a common occurrence, companies need to assume their workforce is no different and have a plan to replace employees as they leave.

Donna Peeples, senior executive consultant, says, “Turn-over is inevitable and often our best employees are our most ‘portable’.” Experienced employees often have recruiters contacting them regularly, and the right offer may tempt them away. Peeples also explains that “leadership development should be part of the overarching collaboration with HR. This will ensure that internal candidates are prepared and ready to step up and be successful with little disruption.”

“Turn-over is inevitable and often our best employees are our most ‘portable’.” – Donna Peeples, senior executive consultant

Training for the role is important, but leadership is a skill that you should teach, as well. Learning management systems (LMS) can help you standardize and distribute training to any relevant employees. You can create custom modules for each role and include leadership training for managerial and executive positions.

Which roles should you be planning for?

When creating a succession plan, you should obviously think about executive and leadership roles, but don’t ignore individual contributor positions that provide a lot of organizational value. Data analysts, software engineers, and project managers are just a few examples of individual contributors that carry a lot of institutional knowledge and can be difficult to replace quickly.

Peeples explains that you can’t strictly look at the roles you have in place now. “Given the recent dynamics of the health crisis which have exacerbated the intensity and complexity of running a business, the velocity of change has increased. We must think ahead to the future needs of the business. What new roles, skills, and competencies will be required in the years to come? Succession plans should be reviewed with regularity and evolve with the needs of the business.” If your business is in a growth phase, you should start thinking about the roles you’ll add in the coming months and years.

Also read: How HR Can Implement Education that Supports All Employee Types

Benefits of succession management

The benefits of succession planning and management go beyond just replacing employees who are leaving. Here are some of the other advantages.

Delegation

When more than one person knows how to do a job, they can split up the work to accelerate the completion of the task. Executives and managers often have more on their plate than they can handle, so being able to delegate makes their lives a lot easier and provides growth opportunities for individual contributors. Additionally, the delegation of small, manual, or repetitive tasks to individual contributors or even to automation tools can free up the mental space for managers to do the big-picture work that is necessary for big growth.

Project management software can help a manager keep an eye on tasks they’ve delegated without devoting a lot of emotional energy towards them. Then, they know the work will get done, but they don’t have to do everything themselves.

Also read: 5 Ways HR Can Learn from Project Management

Healthy work/life balance

If an employee is the only one who knows how to do an important task, they’re likely to feel guilty or anxious about taking paid time off (PTO). They know they’ll have a ton of work to do when they get back, so they spend their time off worrying about their job which can lead to burnout. Instead, you should train more than one person on each task, so one of them can take off without worrying about how much work is piling up in their absence.

Let’s take your payroll manager for example. Do they feel chained to their desk for the last 48 hours of every pay cycle because they’re the only one that knows the process? That feeling isn’t sustainable, and they’ll likely burn out quickly if they don’t get help.

Diversity and inclusion

Peeples notes, “This planning is also a good time to think about diversity and inclusion as part of your ‘people strategy’.” When handling succession management for a role, consider the current level of diversity within your company and how you might be able to improve it. Are there historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the area that specialize in your industry? Or perhaps there’s a Veterans Affairs office you can partner with.

Also read: How to Select a Diverse Interview Panel and Improve Your Recruitment Strategy

How to start succession planning for your business

As you start succession planning for your business, take a look at your organizational chart and identify the roles that would cause major problems if they were suddenly empty tomorrow. Then, you’ll need to determine which current employees could best cover all or part of these roles if it became necessary. Look at people who work closely with the employee currently in that role and whose duties might already overlap. Once you have the list of roles you need to plan for, work with your executive team to create a training plan that includes leadership training. And make sure you’re encouraging your managers to delegate. They can’t and shouldn’t do everything on their own.