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If you are a CEO, an executive team member or a leader heading up a business unit or corporate function, there are some important questions to keep in mind regarding leadership continuity.

  1. Who is your successor?
  2. Who is your successor’s successor?
  3. How often do you review your bench strength?
  4. How effective is your pipeline that builds your bench strength?

In my experience, here is what typically happens when I ask these questions at organizations. Most of the senior leaders that I have encountered can answer the first question. The second question is a little more difficult for them to address. The third question makes them realize they should add a regular bench strength review to their “to do” list. The fourth question usually prompts a concerned “I don’t know” response.

All of these questions relate to succession management which is on the radar of human resources (HR), but it is not always a consistent item on the radar of senior executives. If this is the case in your organization, these points may help to keep it on executive radar:

  • A bench strength shortfall is the third largest cause of stalls in corporate revenue growth (Corporate Strategy Board)
  • Companies with stronger leadership benches are four times more likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth (Corporate Leadership Council)

By emphasizing these two key points, I have found that senior leadership is much more willing to give the appropriate amount of attention to succession management. This attention subsequently provides a way to ensure the execution of succession management is more than a mere popularity contest.

More specifically, succession management is not just a way to promote people who are well-liked by others or to identify backup candidates for top positions in the organizational hierarchy. Succession management is a systematic way of building feeder sources of candidates throughout an organization’s pipeline that enables leadership continuity. Based on the work of Mahler as well as Charan, Drotter and Noel, this pipeline covers the following progression through the organizational hierarchy:

  • Manage self
  • Manage others
  • Manage managers
  • Manage a function
  • Manage a business
  • Manage general managers
  • Manage the enterprise

The feeder sources for the pipeline are especially important as you progress from manage others to manage the enterprise. Incidentally, succession management should not be the sole responsibility of HR. While HR should guide the succession management process, it should not necessarily own it. In order to make sure that succession management is an ongoing process and not just a periodic task to complete, leaders across the organization need to drive it and have metrics to gauge its impact. In order to give you an idea of potential metrics, here are some examples:

  • Total number of distinct successors in the feeder source per critical position
  • Percentage of positions without a “ready now” candidate
  • Percentage of employees making cross-business unit moves in the past X years
  • Utilization rate of development programs by high-potential and designated successor populations
  • Designated successor retention rate

As you continue to consider the specifics for improving your leadership pipeline, be aware that effective succession management integrates other human capital components. These components range from leadership development to performance management. This integration makes sure potential successors are continuing to develop needed capabilities as they are accomplishing objectives in their current roles. Now that you have all of this information, here is one last question: How close is your organization to having a robust succession management process?


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Dollar Photo Club)