Thursday, 25 February 2016

Heir to the throne

In recent days and weeks I've had cause to consider succession planning, as I prepare myself to leave one organisation and join another.  In this post I'll try to summarise some of my thoughts on the topic.

In leaving one organisation I've obviously had to prepare something of a handover.  In doing this I've been struck by how much knowledge exists solely in my head.

And that's not me being big-headed, its more an observation on knowledge management in the organisation and perhaps on the nature of strategic HR roles.

I've written down as much as I can, but very little of what I have been doing over the last 11-12 years is procedural or indeed lends itself to being written down.  So much is insight into how teams and individuals work and perform, how relationships with suppliers and partner organisations operate, and how the organisation lives and breathes.  So much is about history, what has happened and why, and the future, why certain things are planned and designed.

And you can't really write that stuff down.  Believe me, I've tried.

But should I have tried harder?

I am leaving my organisation in a relatively healthy state.  Its got its problems, but who hasn't?  And in my loooooonnnnngggg 3 month notice period I've been able to tie up many loose ends, and ensure other projects and issues are handed over nicely and in good time.  But nonetheless I think some bits of my knowledge will inevitably stay with me, in my head.

I could list the things, as headings, but don't feel any amount of writing the detail would come close to passing them over to anyone.

So is that a risk to the organisation?

Maybe.  Maybe not.

And this is where I perhaps overestimate my importance to the organisation.  They'll cope without me, and there are already new starters who have very recently joined who I have never met, and who will look blankly at someone mentioning the name of Gary Cookson.  In the coming weeks and months people will inevitably say that Gary would have known the answer to X, Y and Z, but then they'll shrug their shoulders and come up with their own answer and a better one at that, which of course is what they ought to do anyway.

In short, no matter how important you are to an organisation while you're there, no matter how much they initially miss you and no matter how big a hole you leave when you do go, life goes on and the organisation copes without you.  No doubt they do better without you in many cases too.

No-one is irreplaceable.

And yet there are risks to organisations in letting key people go.  CEOs are often cited as the major risk, but there are others.  In this article in HR Magazine, it is reported that 43% of organisations will see unexpected leadership change in a 12 month period, but only 32% have a plan in place to deal with this.

And I can understand why.  Its hard.

Look at how my favourite team Manchester United have been faring with succession planning in recent years.  They had plenty of foreknowledge that Alex Ferguson was retiring - whilst he might not have handed his notice in, he was past the usual managers retiring age and clearly had only limited time left, and yet the club went into decline when he left because their succession plan went wrong.  The person thought of as a natural successor was not ready, and the club kneejerked into making another leadership change (and seems poised to make another).

You find relatively few examples of successful succession planning, but lots of examples of failed succession planning.  But you should do it, and these articles from Forbes and Ivyexec explain why and, to a limited degree, how.

But Chief Execs don't change very often.  An organisation ought to be working with incumbent CEOs to help prepare a succession plan, and using the often-lengthy notice period to appoint and onboard a successor.  Of course it isn't always possible, but the longer the notice period the easier this becomes.

I think you can go beyond CEO succession planning if they choose to leave or retire, and as HR professionals we should be taking charge of doing more.  We ought to be looking at emergency planning for illness and other absence and how we would cope if that happened - not just for the CEO but for most or all key roles in the organisation.  This comes under the remit of Business Continuity Planning, which I have often found is dominated by IT and Health and Safety or Legal/Assurance teams but where I think HR should have a leading role too.

And in HR its not just about having a plan in place to cope with unexpected or planned staff absence or turnover.  HR succession planning should cover the partner or supplier organisations we work with - more than once I've had to deal with a supplier organisation going bust and leaving us with a gap in service, and I've learnt from that harsh lesson.  And it should also cover the systems and processes in use in case one of those suddenly doesn't work as it ought to.

But I go back to my initial thoughts on how much can you really succession plan?  What I've talked about above is more continuity planning, and that's really useful, but how much can you really do to ensure smooth transition between the person abdicating and the heir to the throne?

In my case it hasn't been easy, but its been OK - and the organisation will cope and probably thrive in my absence.  There will be things they won't be able to do because there was only me that could do them, but someone else will step up, or the organisation will just find another way to do it, much like running water flowing around an unexpected obstacle.

So I'm mulling over knowledge management and knowledge retention issues now, and also thinking about how I can get these right in my new organisation - aswell as looking at how the organisation continuity plans operate and how we might cope with any unexpected - or planned - change...

I'm gone from one place.  I'll leave a hole, but it'll be filled.  And I'm heading into a hole created by someone else in a new place.I'm not the same shape as the hole, but I've got a shovel and a few ideas...

Till next time...

Gary

PS in other news, wedding dress shopping takes place this weekend and its only six months till the wedding.  My stag do is planned and a few other dominoes are starting to fall...