The following is adapted from The Talent War.
In the military, succession planning is so ingrained; it is like muscle memory. It is one of the things the military does better than nearly anyone else.
On a micro level, in battle, you never know when a leader might be injured, killed, or otherwise incapacitated. If the leader is taken out, there must be a clear, competent second-in-command to step up and take the leader’s place. And if that person is also taken out, there is a third leader, a fourth leader, etc.
You could have a 200-person unit, and there would be a succession plan down to that final 200th soldier. Can you say the same in your company?
Too many companies don’t think about what might happen if a key leader is promoted or quits until it happens. And by then, it’s too late. There is a leadership vacuum.
To prevent such vacuums, you must hire strategically, filling critical roles with future leaders. But if you don’t know where your leadership gaps are, how can you possibly hire strategically?
So before you even think about hiring, you must first establish a succession plan.
What is Succession Planning?
Succession planning is a detailed, written plan for who is in line to take over key leadership roles. Succession planning prepares you for the inevitable leadership changes and creates mentorship and development programs to nurture leaders within your organization.
Succession planning involves asking questions like the following:
- What is the quality of our talent? Where are our gaps?
- What pillars of talent do we need now, and what building blocks do we need for the future?
- Where are we missing leadership? Where are we missing number twos and number threes?
- What do we need in terms of human capital over the next year? The next five years? The next ten years?
- In what areas are we growing? Which departments are set to expand and when?
- Where might we experience attrition? Who’s a flight risk?
You must regularly revisit these questions. Succession planning is not something you can do once a year. Your organization is a living, breathing entity that is constantly changing, and so your succession plan must continuously change too.
The 9 Box: A Succession-Planning Tool
You can use many tools for succession planning, but one of our favorites is the 9 Box. The 9 Box is ideal for succession planning because it identifies employees’ current and potential positions.
The 9 Box is a three-by-three grid of nine boxes, with performance along one axis and potential along with the other. The people clustered at the top right of the box are poised for promotion into higher roles. Unless they’re newly hired, the people at the bottom left require more training and leadership development, and in some cases, need to be let go.
Everyone in a leadership role should complete the 9 Box, placing their direct reports where appropriate. If they don’t have anyone in the top right corner, it indicates a significant leadership gap. If that leader moved out of their position for any reason, there would be no one to take their place.
The 9 Box gives you a clear picture of who is in line for succession and how much professional development they need to advance. People with high performance and high potential are ready for advancement immediately. High performers with moderate potential are typically prepared for a higher role within six months, and intermediate performers with high potential usually need six to eighteen months.
The 9 Box also identifies flight risks. If you have many top performers crammed into the top right blocks and only a couple of promotions scheduled for the next year, then you know who may grow dissatisfied and begin looking for work elsewhere. Armed with that knowledge, you can either prepare for them to leave or take action to ensure they stay.
You should complete 9 Boxes regularly because people are constantly changing. An employee who once showed high leadership potential may turn out to be a poor fit, and one who showed lower leadership potential may grow and become an exceptional leader.
What’s Your Succession Plan?
Most companies might have a general idea of their number two and three, but there is no detailed, written plan.
If your organization does not have a clear succession plan for all its essential functions, you are saying that it’s okay to have blind spots, that it’s okay not to know your weaknesses or gaps. Without knowing your gaps, a single leader leaving could be hugely detrimental. You are setting yourself up for failure.
Instead, you can hire more effectively through diligent succession planning, ensuring you have key leaders in all the right spots, with others ready to step up when needed.
For more advice on succession planning and hiring, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.