Do you know how your business would manage without you?
Lack of succession planning – although common – can nonetheless be extremely damaging to an organisation
Some workers, nervous in their position, even keep a watchful eye on their colleagues in case they begin to show signs of being slightly too capable
Despite evidence to the contrary, many of us like to imagine that the world would stop turning without us in it. In the workplace, in particular, few of us can picture anyone else being able to perform our role quite as competently as we do.
Some of us even keep a watchful eye on our colleagues in case they begin to show signs of being slightly too capable. Senior managers, nervous about those rising up the ranks behind them, can be especially guilty of this.
A recent study of 500 managers in the UK by recruitment firm Office Angels showed that fear of being undermined and/or potentially of being replaced meant that few business leaders had engaged in the process of identifying a successor.
According to the study, four out of 10 bosses said they would be concerned about their job security if they had a definite succession plan in place, while a quarter said they would feel so vulnerable that they would have no choice but to leave .
While such insecurity is understandable, it’s also incredibly damaging to an organisation. As any football club that has hastily sacked its manager will be quick to admit, it’s not always as easy to find a successor in a hurry, let alone one that will bring you glory.
While numerous studies have shown the benefits of anointing a successor, this isn’t enough to persuade some business leaders to think ahead. According to the Office Angels survey, more than half of the managers canvassed were running an operation that didn’t have a succession plan in place, meaning it could easily find itself rudderless if the boss were to go.
“Having the right people, in the right place, at the right time is critical to the competitiveness of any organisation,” said Chris Moore, managing director of Office Angels UK and Ireland.
Moore recommends that companies should not only have a continuity plan in place to replace senior managers, but should also roll one out across the entire organisation to make sure they can quickly respond to employee churn rate.
“Fire-fighting to fill immediate vacancies, without a longer-term strategy, could see the loss of critical skills, productivity and revenue with every resignation,” he warned.
Learn the hard way Sometimes organisations learn this lesson the hard way. Take McDonald’s, for example. In the space of two years in the early 2000s, it appointed three chief executives, two of whom died within nine months of each other. This upset led the company to introduce a detailed succession plan that involves grooming two successors for each key role.
“Give me the names of two people who could succeed you,” were the words that former chief executive Jim Skinner regularly used to say to his managers.
Nonetheless, even in the US, succession planning remains something of a minority sport.
A recent survey from the Stanford Rock Center for Corporate Governance found only 46 per cent of US businesses had a formal process for developing successor candidates for key executive positions.
According to Brian Ward, a career consultant and formerly managing partner at the executive search firm Merc, succession planning is quite widespread among multinational companies based here and is usually considered an integral part of their performance management process. However, in smaller organisations in Ireland, it is less likely, he concedes.
This view is echoed by John Deely, an occupational psychotherapist and founder of the Dublin-based firm Pinpoint, who said that many indigenous companies are lagging behind their European counterparts.
Mr Deely says there are two core reasons why companies don’t put a continuity plan in place.
One is that bosses are rightly consumed with the important job of trying to grow their business. The second reason, however, relates to a leader’s mindset.
“While there are many practical barriers to the implementation of succession planning, the biggest barriers are psychological. Doing this requires leaders to confront their own end game in the role and then properly embrace the process of sharing some of their power to develop successors. It takes a very confident and special leader to focus on their legacy in the area of senior talent development,” he said.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that things might be easier in family-run firms, but that’s not always the case. While it’s certainly true that successors are likely to have been groomed to take over the reins, it’s not necessarily a fool-proof succession, as Mr Deely makes clear.
“Family-run businesses are a category in their own right with their own special mix of strengths and dysfunctionalities. In a family-run business where the desire is to maintain the involvement of the next generation in the business, the successors are obvious. However, that defined talent pool is not always interested or suited to taking on the mantle of leadership,” he said.
“A sense of duty to the family brand on its own is not an ideal basis for taking on a lead role,” he adds. “On the flipside, those members of the senior management team who are not family members can face a tricky career navigation business as they simply hit a wall they would not hit in a standard corporate environment.”
One family-run company that believes it has worked out the problem of succession is Co Wexford-based Sheridan Insurances.
The company was established by Paddy Sheridan in 1964. He still has an involvement in the business, but has passed on much of the day-to-day running of it to his two sons Ciarán and Donagh.
“Handing over the responsibility was less of an issue than I had foreseen. I was acutely aware of my own limitations in certain aspects of running the business and I knew I needed help in those areas. Once I had the confidence that either of the boys had the competence to perform the necessary tasks, it was much easier to let the reins go,” said Paddy.
Ciarán admits it was a steep learning curve joining the business, particularly as he had been working in a different industry in Australia prior to returning home But he’s come to enjoy the responsibility.
Stressed out “We were lucky that we identified early on that Dad was the one who would be left to referee if Donagh and myself had any issues. This was never going to work and would have stressed the life out of him. With the help of a local management consultant, we did a piece of strategy work and concluded that we needed an experienced external person to act purely and exclusively in the interest of the business,” he said.
Another family-run business that believes its succession plan is well formed is Dundalk-based Spectac. The stainless steel manufacturing company was established by Tony Healy in 1986. His daughter Faye recently came on board as a director and so far it has been plain sailing.
Tony credits Faye for helping the company to diversify with the recent introduction of a turnkey brewhouse for the craft brewing industry.
“I feel more at ease knowing that I can leave the offices and know that Faye is there to take over at any time. Before, I never felt as though I could do this and so it is a huge weight off my shoulders,” he said.
Any firm considering putting together a succession plan – whether for executives or for all staff – needs to keep in mind that it isn’t necessarily an easy process and may cause some conflict internally.
“The golden rule of succession is to give it plenty of lead time. It takes time to identify the future competencies required and then put the structures in place to foster that talent internally,” said Deely.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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