Business continuity in uncertain times: why leadership assessment and succession planning are key

Succession planning should form a part of every organisation’s talent management strategy. This was true before the pandemic. Now, it is more critical than ever.

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Many senior leaders have had to adapt to the remote-working environment and accelerated pace of digitalisation while steering organisations through economically-uncertain times. Some leaders reported experiencing burnout from having to crisis manage their way through the pandemic, and this likely contributed to a rise in succession activity during the second half of 2020.

As with any form of crisis, the pandemic has underlined how important it is to have leadership talent waiting in the wings, ready to swoop in and take over from departing senior leaders, minimising business disruption.

But organisations should go beyond simply deciding who should replace A when A leaves. Developing a succession planning strategy, one that is informed by leadership assessment insights and deploys development programmes to prepare a diverse workforce for a range of different roles, is necessary for the health and success of an organisation.

Why is it important to have a succession planning strategy in place?

When a senior leader departs, business continuity is key – for both the people inside the organisation and to keeping external stakeholders and shareholders satisfied that the ship is being steered smoothly. A succession planning strategy better prepares organisations to weather any storms that occur around senior departures and facilitates the handling of an abrupt departure.

But your workforce also benefits. If career development opportunities exist for employees within their organisation, they are likely to remain more engaged and effective in their role. Having a pipeline of successors also boosts organisational culture, as employees know they won’t automatically lose out to an external hire when someone leaves. Instead, they realise they are being invested in to develop the skills they need to thrive in a business-critical role.

Succession planning is about being proactive, and able to respond in a timely way when circumstances require. It is about developing a workforce for the future that can thrive in different conditions.

These conditions can’t always be planned for, as we have seen with the pandemic. The best approach is to identify successors, put development programmes in place to strengthen the leadership capabilities of potential successors with organisational knowledge, and build a pipeline so there is always talent ready to take over, whether it be on an interim or permanent basis.

The value of leadership assessment in succession planning

Too often, there is a gap between a senior leader leaving and the organisation knowing who will be passed the baton. When such a gap exists, this can lead to the wrong type of talent filling a leadership role.

For example, an organisation could have a highly-skilled scientist or software engineer who performs a non-managerial role to a high standard and is considered an asset. As they are considered an asset, they are ‘promoted’ and encouraged to take on a more managerial/leadership role that might not suit their skills or temperament. As a result, another gap is created between leadership and effective leadership.

An employee may be technically or creatively gifted, but not capable of – or interested in – leading a team or taking on a leadership role. This is where rigorous leadership assessment and succession planning is valuable. Assessment takes a 360-approach, working with potential leaders to assess their leadership capabilities, while succession planning is necessary to grow and develop potential leaders so that no one is shoehorned into a role they are not suitable/trained for and/or do not want.

There is value in uniting the two practices and putting in place a system whereby employees with leadership potential are identified and supported (through leadership development) to take on a particular role.

A closer look at leadership assessment

Invest in leadership assessment, and your succession planning strategy will be more successful.

Assessment can identify traits that are essential for effective leadership, such as empathy, emotional intelligence, and inclusivity. Assessments should be specific to the strategic goals and values of an organisation and focus on identifying and developing the skills and behaviours necessary to maximise an individual’s contribution to that organisation.

At LHH, we use a research-guided system called aKumen to articulate what leadership means to each organisation, and to assess potential leaders while identifying their core strengths and highlighting areas of risk.

The focus is always on effective leadership and defining what effective leadership means for that organisation. For example, we combine a number of data points, informed by best-in-class psychometric exercises and a deep-dive psychological interview, to form a rigorous view of an individual’s leadership strengths, risks, and development priorities. 

It is important to lean on data, but a lack of rigour means succession planning can be inconsistent or open to biases. This was an issue for a large UK technology provider that wanted to identify who to move into leadership roles based on performance management data. Instead, LHH recommended our aKumen approach to better understand an individual’s strengths and development priorities while establishing specific themes at the group level to support the company’s broader talent management strategy. 

If leadership assessment and succession planning are managed successfully, the right successors will be ready to fill positions when required, equipped with the necessary skills, behaviours, and mindset.

The pandemic may have exacerbated some issues surrounding succession planning. If your organisation is asking, ‘who can fill these roles and how can we improve the health of our talent pipeline’, contact LHH.

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