Navigation SearchNavigation ContactNavigation Products
Leadership Resources



Taking Your Succession Management Plan into the 21st Century

Six Mistakes that Can Cripple Your Efforts to Build Leadership Bench Strength

By William C. Byham, Ph.D.

“The thing that wakes me up in the middle of the night is not what might happen to the economy or what our competitors might do next; it is worrying about whether we have the leadership capacity and talent to implement the new and more complex global strategies.” — David Whitwam, Chairman, President, and CEO Whirlpool Corporation

Having moved into the new millennium, virtually every executive faces the same daunting dilemma: The demand for leadership talent far outstrips the supply. In fact, the dearth of people qualified for important leadership positions has become one of the foremost challenges facing managers today. For instance:

  • When The Conference Board asked CEOs in the United States, Europe, and Japan for their top concerns, competition for talent was ranked among the top five (Csoka, 1998).
  • In a study by McKinsey & Company (Chambers, Foulon, Handfield-Jones, Hankin, & Michaels, 1998), three-quarters of the executives in the 77 companies studied said their company either didn’t have enough leadership talent at times or was “chronically short of talent.”
  • A majority (76%) of the 252 organizations surveyed by the Corporate Leadership Council (2000) were less than fully confident in their ability to staff leadership positions across the next five years. While 64 percent reported that their CEOs strongly agreed that leadership was a top priority, while only 18 percent felt it was a low priority.

Demand for Leaders Fueled by . . .

While most growing organizations typically will need more leaders, during the next 10 years an increasing number of companies will face an unusually large shortfall in executive talent brought on by:

. . . Retirement

Although workers today can choose to remain in their jobs longer (in the United States forced retirement constitutes age discrimination), managers and executives are retiring earlier. Some are taking advantage of consulting opportunities to supplement retirement income. And many managers in their 50s are simply looking forward to applying their skills in other fields.

. . . Downsizing in the 1990s

Downsizing during the 1990s dramatically reduced the field of possible internal replacements. In the last 5-10 years, many people who by now would have been logical choices to fill top leadership positions were eliminated from the ranks. The result has been not only a shortage of leadership talent, but also an age gap separating upper management from the new cadre of middle managers—a group that senior management often perceives to be young and unprepared for the challenges at the top.

. . . the Need for Leaders with More Competencies

As organizations become more complex and global, the number of competencies (behavior, knowledge, and motivations) required for success at senior levels is growing beyond the traditional business and leadership skills. Companies are looking for visionary individuals who excel at collaboration and partnering, grasp the big picture, are able to handle vast ambiguities, can deal with international issues, and can produce rapid results. Above all, organizations want good leaders and people developers—not just good managers.

. . . the Need for Higher-Performing Leaders

The minimum standards for all senior management competencies have been raised, because the positions have become more challenging; those who fill them must be more organizationally agile than ever before and comfortable and confident enough to handle the unfamiliar. In addition, 21st-century executives need a broader range of job experiences than their predecessors did. Many companies will insist that, to cut it at the top, prospective senior leaders must have experience with a start-up, merger, or acquisition; a fast-growth organization; managing in a union environment; implementing a change or a new technology; or leading and living outside of their home country.

. . . Poaching

Three options

Given all the elements working against organizations trying to find and keep top leadership talent, your company might find itself staring at three options. You can:

  • Do nothing.
  • Hire from outside.
  • Grow your own leaders.

Do Nothing

If your organization has no succession management plan in place or chooses to let succession take care of itself, then it is only a matter of time before the company erodes from within. The weakest performers will stay on because they feel safe or, even worse, will become the mediocre leaders of tomorrow. This upward seep of mediocrity, coupled with the loss of top performers frustrated because their efforts go unrewarded, can lead to irreparable damage to an organization.

An organization with a laissez-faire approach to succession management also will feel the repercussions on Wall Street, where the viability of future leadership has become a significant, ongoing concern to boards and investors and is an important factor in driving stock value.

Hire from Outside

Going outside of the organization for talent makes sense in many instances—especially when the company stands to benefit from new technology, an infusion of new ideas, or a fresh perspective. In fact, a DDI survey of more than 1,000 executives found that in most cases organizations prefer to go outside to fill 20-30 percent of senior leadership positions, opting to fill the remainder from the inside.

However, going outside for executive talent is an expensive, time-consuming process. The search for the right candidate can leave your organization with open positions and lost opportunities; it can even hamstring your ability to follow through on planned business initiatives. The cost of an executive search can easily stretch into six figures. Meanwhile, the starting pay of a senior leader brought in from the outside is almost always higher than that paid to someone promoted from within.

It’s also risky. There is no room for guesswork in gauging an outside candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. Hiring mistakes at the senior level can be devastating to an organization.

Grow Your Own Leaders (Succession Management)

The grow-your-own-leaders approach is an obvious strategy for a number of reasons:

  • Having identified leadership bench strength in place helps your organization meet both long-term and emergency leadership needs at all levels. It also ensures continuity of management.
  • Growing your own leaders sends a positive message throughout your workforce. Promoting people is good for morale—and essential to a positive company culture. People want to join and stay with an organization that develops its own people. And promoting from within is consistent with an empowerment philosophy that encourages people to take on responsibility, assume risk, measure outcomes, and grow through their achievements.
  • In general, your organization will have a clearer sense of an internal candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as well asaccess to more and better data on that person’s performance than you would with outside candidates. Therefore, you’ll be able to make more informed and accurate selection decisions.
  • Growing your own leaders makes it easier to achieve your organization’s diversity goals by ensuring that it has an appropriate gender and ethnic mix of candidates in the selection pipeline.

Six mistakes that can undermine any succession management system

Despite the obvious advantages of cultivating leaders from within, many succession management initiatives fall flat in their attempts to ensure deep senior management bench strength. Over the past 30 years, my DDI colleagues and I have worked with 19,000 organizations, including 470 of the Fortune 500. In working with these companies—many of which we partnered with to design and implement succession management systems—we observed and interviewed many CEOs struggling with the challenge of filling 70–80 percent of their top leadership positions with qualified internal talent.

Good intentions, we found, often are undermined by critical errors that can cause apparently sound strategies to fail. For the remainder of this white paper, I will discuss six common mistakes that can sabotage your organization’s succession management efforts plus the solutions you can implement to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Focus people's development on a specific job (replacement planning)

Many succession management systems are hopelessly outdated. Case in point: The traditional replacement-planning systems, in which senior managers are asked to identify replacements for themselves—and sometimes for their direct reports—and estimate when those individuals will be ready to step up into the new role. In our experience, most organizations with designated replacements fill only about one-third of their management positions with individuals targeted by the system. Constant, rapid changes in jobs, organizational structure, and business strategy render the traditional replacement-planning approach ineffective.

To make matters worse, these systems usually aren’t aligned with the organization’s business strategies and can consume volumes of executives’ time filling out forms and attending meetings. PepsiCo once found that it was burning 250,000 executive hours a year on replacement planning activities. It has since scrapped that system in favor of one that targets a specific organizational level instead of a specific position (see the solution below).

Solution: An acceleration pool system

An Acceleration PoolSM system represents a drastic departure from traditional replacement planning. Instead of targeting one or two handpicked people for each executive position, an Acceleration Pool grooms a group of high-potential candidates for executive jobs in general. As the name implies, the development of these high potentials is accelerated. Pool members, who can enter the pool at any organizational level or at any age:

  • Get assignments that offer the best learning and highest visibility opportunities.
  • Spend less time in assignments.
  • Receive “stretch” assignments.
  • Get more training.
  • Attend developmental activities designed especially for them.
  • Have an assigned mentor.
  • Are not guaranteed promotion.
  • Get more feedback and coaching.

In an Acceleration Pool system, senior executives no longer need to worry about who’s going to back up whom in their organization, except for the top positions. Executives, freed from the annual chore of completing replacement-planning forms, have more time to focus on tracking pool members’ skill and knowledge development—that is, on cultivating tomorrow’s leaders.

The size of an Acceleration Pool depends on the number of executive positions, and the organization’s ability to support development, which includes:

  • Top management’s available time.
  • The availability of mentors.
  • The number of prime developmental assignments.

While Acceleration Pool members are not slotted for specific jobs, the variety of senior management positions throughout an organization must be considered when deciding on the pool’s makeup. Senior leaders must remember that the makeup of the pool equals the makeup of the company’s future executive leadership.

Figure 1 shows a hypothetical example of an Acceleration Pool that might be found in a midsize company (1,000 to 5,000 employees) preparing candidates for general management positions.

Figure 1: Acceleration Pool in a Midsize Company
Acceleration pools in a mid-sized company

There can be many variations on the basic Acceleration Pool shown in Figure 1. A larger organization might have two pools—one starting at the supervisory and professional individual contributor level and one starting at the middle management level (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Large Company with Two Acceleration Pools
Large company with two acceleration pools

The number of pools often reflects how a company is organized. For example, an Acceleration Pool in a manufacturing organization might exist to fill top plant-management positions, while a pool of middle managers might be designated to fill a range of corporate positions. Often, large strategic business units (SBUs) will have their own Acceleration Pools to fill senior SBU positions in addition to the wider company pool that is aimed at filling senior corporate management positions (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Organization with a Pool in Each Business Unit and a Pool for Corporate Positions
Acceleration pool in each business unit

Mistake 2: Inaccurate identification of potential leaders

Senior managers often delude themselves into thinking that they have a good feel for who the up-and-coming people in the organization are, when in reality they don’t. Many fail to canvas their entire organization for high potentials and instead select people based solely upon their personal—often limited—knowledge of them. This allows a “good old boy” system to prevail and can give the lawyers and accountants who interact regularly with top management an advantage over talented, but less-visible, line managers. Such a skewed approach to identifying tomorrow’s leaders can also drive these talented, but underappreciated, managers to move on to other companies.

Chance Observations

Many executives also rely heavily on chance observations of people. For example, a CEO might observe a manager making a presentation and subsequently draw conclusions about that person’s abilities and future with the company. Such chance observations offer, at best, a mere glimpse into a person’s talents. What about the managers who might be equally or better qualified, but who didn’t have an opportunity to display their talents while the CEO was looking on?

Criteria Are Not Clear

Many large organizations compile their list of high flyers by asking senior executives from throughout the organization to nominate people. The nomination process often has one or more of these fundamental flaws:

  • The criteria for selection are not clear.
  • The standards against which people are evaluated vary from one part of the organization to another and from one part of the world to another.
  • While some nominators are conscientious about submitting names and supporting documentation, others who don’t want to give up their best people sometimes play games. For instance, they might name an individual who just started a foreign assignment, knowing full well that the person can’t be transferred out of the division. Still others hide their best people and submit names of people they wouldn’t mind losing.

Solution: Be more systematic in selection

To make the talent identification/nomination process as accurate as possible, an organization needs a uniform set of criteria against which candidates for accelerated development can be evaluated. For starters, these criteria should include:

  • A history of job success, as evidenced by measures of revenue growth, process improvements, or innovation.
  • Proven leadership.
  • Motivation for top management and demonstrated actions to get there.
  • Displayed business acumen/entrepreneurial ability.
  • Evidence of strategic thinking.
  • Modeling organizational values.
  • Development of others.

Cast a Wide Net

With the nomination criteria in place, an organization must cast a wide net in its search for high-potential candidates. This can be especially challenging in international organizations where the company’s foreign operations use different performance appraisal standards and ratings. Effective organizations have established systems for fairly and accurately identifying talent from throughout the world.

When large organizations grow or morph through international acquisitions and mergers, identifying globally dispersed talent can mean an entirely different set of challenges for the parent company. On one hand, mergers and acquisitions infuse the organization with new talent. However, finding high flyers within new corners of a geographically dispersed global organization can be akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. A common standard is needed that reflects the challenges inherent to both senior field and corporate leadership assignments. Further, it is important to ensure that previously unknown emergent leaders from newly acquired segments of the organization be afforded similar recognition and consideration as known high potentials from the parent company.

Use Effective Tools to Identify Talent

More and more organizations such as Cisco Systems, PPG, and General Motors have turned to the Acceleration CenterSM to provide the consistency needed throughout the United States and their worldwide operations to screen nominees for rapid development. These modern-day assessment centers can get an accurate fix on nominees’ potential, as well as their developmental needs.

Acceleration Centers can confirm that nominees do, in fact, have senior leadership potential by immersing them into a simulated business environment in which they must use executive skills to perform effectively. Candidates take on challenges they would face in senior leadership, such as handling interdepartmental conflicts, negotiating a merger or acquisition, dealing with government officials, handling the press, and making important decisions under severe time constraints without having all the relevant facts.

Each nominee’s behavior is evaluated by professional assessors and he or she receives extensive, behavior-based feedback on development needs—a significant benefit to nominees whether or not they are selected for accelerated development. The organization receives a summary report of the feedback.

Because all nominees for accelerated development go through the same simulations and have the same opportunities to exhibit their skills, the organization is able to use the results to make relevant, objective, and fair judgments on the skills of people who work in very different functional areas and environments.

Acceleration Centers:
Modern-day assessment centers

Today’s Acceleration Centers are a far cry from the assessment centers developed nearly 50 years ago by AT&T for the Bell operating companies. The most striking enhancements include:

  • Use of outside, professional assessors rather than a company’s middle managers.
  • The use of computer-based technology, which speeds and enhances the assessment process.
  • The use of video to record interactions so assessors have more time to study behavior.
  • The strategic high-level nature of the simulations, which are integrated to simulate a day in the life of an executive.
  • The availability of facilities built specifically to conduct the assessment, thus adding to the realism and reliability of the simulation.

Acceleration Center simulations help define specific, individual development needs and assist organizations in estimating how far and fast candidates will progress. They look beyond resumes and current performance and help predict a person’s potential for helping the company meet future objectives.

Moreover, Acceleration Centers can fairly and accurately compare the potential of employees in corporate locations around the world, allowing the organization to fully tap into its global talent.

Case study:
The Acceleration Center finds a diamond

A large global organization decided to put people with certain organizational titles through an Acceleration Center to help identify those with top-management potential. Coming to the center were leaders who managed up to 1,000 employees and a young man who was responsible for only three employees. He got to the center because he was the comptroller of a very small unit in Nova Scotia. The man had not gone to college, while most of the other managers being evaluated were MBAs from some of the world’s leading schools. But the young man performed admirably—indeed, he was one of the very best of the hundreds who went through the center.

The organization jumped on the opportunity, sending the young man to an executive development program at Harvard, giving him some behavioral training, and promoting him. Every few years, it moved him to a different key global assignment. Each time, he exceeded expectations; within a few years he was leading one of the organization’s largest sectors.

There are three lessons to draw from this story:

  1. All organizations have more talent than they think they do—the trick is to find it.
  2. The Acceleration Center method is a very good system for spotting high potentials.
  3. An Acceleration Center is an excellent tool for diagnosing specific development needs, which can then be met by targeted training interventions. The young man in the case study was given behavioral training based on needs identified in the center.

Mistake 3: Poor diagnosis of development needs

Once high-potential individuals have been identified, their development needs must be diagnosed so that they can get the training and unique experiences needed to prepare them for success at the next level. This is often easier said than done, as many organizations have discovered. The result often is a poor diagnosis of a person’s development needs. Too frequently, this mistake stems from one or more of these practices:

  • Using a “one-size-fits-all” approach to developing high potentials.
  • Considering only a narrow range of development needs.
  • Developing people to handle last year’s problems.
  • Failing to use the best methodologies to assess development needs.

One Size Fits All

When a system provides the same development to all high potentials, time and money are wasted as some people’s specific needs go overlooked, while other people are trained in areas where they already have solid skills. What’s more, many people will grow frustrated by a lack of meaningful development experiences and leave the organization.

Considering Only a Narrow Range of Development Needs

Many organizations look at only skill development needs in their diagnostic efforts, ignoring needs in the areas of knowledge, experiences, or personality factors. Other organizations concentrate on experiences and ignore the other needs.

Developing People to Handle Last Year’s Problems

Too many succession management systems are geared to produce people who can handle last year’s challenges, which are often vastly different from the challenges that will face executives in the future. These systems derive their criteria for future management by looking only at the characteristics of current management, rather than considering what characteristics are needed to support the organization’s strategy.

Not Using the Best Methodologies to Assess Development Needs

Often, diagnosis is based solely on management’s opinion, which often hinges on chance observation. Thus, it is difficult to evaluate people’s skills in areas where they have not had an opportunity to perform.

Solution: Define what people need to have to succeed in future management positions and scientifically diagnose their development needs

In order to diagnose future executives’ development needs, it’s important to have a clear picture of what skills, knowledge, experience, and personality traits executives will need in the years to come. There are four types of executive descriptors that define the successful executive of the future:

  • Organizational KnowledgeWhat one knows—The functions, processes, systems, products, services, or technologies of an organization that a general manager must understand. For example, a candidate might be assessed in terms of his or her knowledge of company products, how the R&D process operates, or the function of the HR department.
  • Job ChallengesWhat one has done—The kinds of situations that someone entering top management should have experienced or at least been exposed to. Some examples include carrying a key functional assignment through from beginning to end; being heavily involved with a merger, acquisition, strategic alliance, or partnership opportunity; implementing a plan to cut costs or control inventories; negotiating agreements with external organizations; and operating in high-pressure or high-visibility situations.
  • CompetenciesWhat one is capable of—The clusters of behavior, knowledge, technical skills, and motivation that are important to success in senior management. Some examples include Change Leadership, Establishing Strategic Direction, Entrepreneurship, and Global Acumen.
  • Executive DerailersWho one is—The personality traits that might cause an otherwise effective senior leader to fail on the job. These would include being approval dependent, argumentative (defensive), arrogant, attention-seeking (self-promoting), avoidant (procrastinator, addresses issues covertly), eccentric, imperceptive, impulsive, perfectionistic (micromanager), risk-averse, and volatile.

With the exception of the derailers, the executive descriptors must be specific for each organization and tied to its strategy. Too many companies use lists of outdated competencies or place undue emphasis on jobs the individual must have held when they should be looking at the skills and knowledge he or she acquired while in those jobs.

Acceleration Centers, with their combination of simulations, inventories, multirater (360°) instruments, and behavior-based interviews, offer a scientific, in-depth assessment of pool members’ development needs in competencies and derailers.

A truism of industrial/organizational psychology is that when multiple job-related methodologies are used for evaluation—and when multiple trained people involved in different parts of the evaluation systematically pool their insights to develop a holistic portrait of an individual—more accurate predictions result. This is how an Acceleration Center operates.

Different assessors observe individuals’ behavior as they go through a set of integrated simulations. As mentioned earlier, the simulations are designed to mirror various challenges or issues the individual will face at the target job level. In addition to realistic, contemporary executive simulations, Acceleration Centers also use paper-and-pencil instruments, multirater (360°) instruments, and behavior-based interviews to round out the diagnosis.

A day and a half in the life of an Acceleration Center participant

Acceleration Centers allow participants to try on senior roles, accountabilities, and activities in a relatively risk-free, simulated environment. Participants usually find that these “stretch” experiences deliver important insights and give them realistic job previews. Here’s an example, as seen through the eyes of a participating manager:

If you’re being perfectly honest with yourself, you’re a little nervous—perhaps more than a little. You’ve gotten a thick folder of information (via the Web or the mail—your choice) about ABC Corporation, your hypothetical company. You’ve read that you’re the new vice president, and you’re preparing for a busy day on the job. The CEO is travelling and unavailable for the next few days. It’s 7:30 a.m. You face a dizzying collection of e-mails and voice mails that demand replies and a stack of notes and memos in your in-basket. If that isn’t enough, you have a very full schedule of meetings and your boss needs a strategic plan from you by tomorrow.

Welcome to the deep end of the pool!

  • You dig in, establishing priorities for everything and organizing your time. You meet with Dana Wright, a peer who’s upset about one of your staff, and who once held the job you hold now.
  • You get three more e-mails.
  • You meet with Chris Jackson, who’s been late filing for FCC compliance for your company’s make-or-break new product.
  • You have a working lunch to begin creating your strategic plan.
  • You meet with Ronnie Hightower, whose company could be a profitable strategic partner. But now Ronnie wants to buy your company’s technology outright.
  • You review new in-basket items.
  • You meet with an irate customer who’s ready to jump ship.
  • You do a live interview with a local TV reporter who heard rumors that health hazards might be linked to your products and is digging for an exposé.
  • You leave the office after a long day and, that night, prepare for your presentation the next day of a strategic plan.
  • You arrive early the next morning to add some final touches to your strategic plan, which you will present to a group of vice presidents. And you review your speech, which you hope will motivate and inspire a lackluster workforce.
  • Your presentation and speech, except for a few minor glitches, go better than expected. It’s around 1 p.m. on the second day. The whirlwind is over. You’ve made it through.

It’s been a demanding 36 hours. You’ve solved strategic problems, tested your vision, and addressed vendor problems, personnel matters, thorny diversity issues, and professional jealousies. You’ve smoothed ruffled feathers, averted disasters, built trust, demonstrated leadership, delegated, and established a strategic direction. You’re tired, but you feel good about what you’ve done.

The deep end of the pool isn’t so bad after all.

Mistake 4: Having a limited range of development solutions

Too often, traditional succession management systems fail to offer the kinds of growth opportunities that make a difference in the development of high potentials. Along with using inappropriate criteria for success and being based on a poor diagnosis of needs (see pages 6-10), the ineffectiveness of development plans can be traced to several other factors:

  • High-potential individuals generally aren’t very good at prescribing development actions for themselves. They don’t know the options available to them, and many of the best strategies, such as taking on a temporary international assignment, are beyond their control.
  • Planned development actions are often shallow or, at best, lack maximum impact. Many people in traditional succession management systems are unaware of the range of development options available to them, or they feel that the daily pressures of the job don’t afford them time to take on an in-depth development assignment. Instead, it’s common for aspiring leaders to say they will take a class (in person or on the Web) or read a book to meet almost all development needs.
  • Managers often are not involved in the planning or approval of development plans. Because they are often not involved in the creation of development plans, many managers give little support when it comes to allocating time or resources to implement the plans. If involved, a manager can usually suggest more efficient or effective development alternatives.
  • There is little follow-up by management to ensure progress. In carrying out their development plans, high flyers frequently see little in the way of tangible help—coaching, reinforcement, opening doors for opportunities—from their immediate managers. When this happens, chances are good that even well-planned development actions will wither on the vine.

Solution: Be more creative in development options

Carefully chosen, creative developmental activities are a staple of an Acceleration Pool system. The group of executives charged with overseeing the Acceleration Pool is responsible for placing pool members into situations where they can experience the required job challenges, obtain needed organizational knowledge, develop and leverage competencies, and overcome executive derailers. Top management takes an active role in charting each Acceleration Pool member’s development by:

  • Making job assignments.
  • Making long-term task force assignments.
  • Assigning learning experiences, such as attending conferences or assuming the lead on a committee.
  • Matching the pool member with a professional coach.
  • Recommending specific training.

Acceleration Pool members can achieve maximum development through a combination of short, high-impact, targeted training programs; short-term learning experiences (e.g., attending conventions or hosting a delegation of foreign customers); and, most of all, meaningful, measurable job or task force assignments.

Jobs, task force membership, and other longer-term assignments are the most important vehicles for developing Acceleration Pool members, because they offer opportunities to satisfy several development objectives at once. For example, in a given assignment, a pool member might encounter two job challenges and three areas of organizational knowledge, have a chance to develop one competency, and be able to address one derailer.

All development occurs within the context of high-quality job performance. There is a clear link between successful development and job success. Both are accomplished at the same time.

Major learning events, such as university programs or action learning events, can be developed exclusively for Acceleration Pool members. Action learning events enable pool members to work in teams as they confront major organizational issues and make recommendations to senior management. Strategy-orientation programs represent another training alternative often tailored for Acceleration Pool members.

Another creative solution for developing Acceleration Pool members is the use of an executive coach. Top management decides when—or if—it is appropriate to make an executive coach available to specific pool members.

The executive board typically meets with the heads of organizational or business units at least twice a year to review major personnel movements and discuss talent development. Board members review Acceleration Pool members’ progress at that time and consider creative ways to speed their development.

Mistake 5: Development plans are never put into action

Perhaps the greatest pitfall of traditional succession management programs is a lack of follow-through on development plans. Each year, hundreds of thousands of executives and aspiring executives put together individual development plans that incorporate feedback from their bosses and peers in multirater (360o) instruments, assessment centers, or training programs. What happens next? For the most part, not much.

Only a comparatively small number of development plans are implemented, and an even smaller number produce desired outcomes. There are two primary reasons for this:

  • The daily pressures of the job often relegate even well-crafted development plans to the back burner. The high-potential individual fully intends to carry out his or her plan, but never gets the opportunity to take the planned actions.
  • The person’s immediate manager (and mentor) is unclear about the role he or she should be playing in supporting the person’s implementation of the development plan.

Solution: The immediate manager and mentor are active in the development planning process

Management support is a key ingredient in the success of an Acceleration Pool system. Pool members meet with their current manager (or their manager in their upcoming assignment) and their mentor (a high-ranking executive, often from another part of the organization) to pin down the specifics of how best to develop the competencies, job challenges, and organizational knowledge identified as development priorities while also accomplishing the objectives of their job assignment. Successful completion of the assignment is the primary development goal.

Other development goals are always closely tied to assignment success. For example, the manager, mentor, and pool member might discuss a derailer and ways to avoid potential problems in completing an assignment, or they might talk about how developing a target competency or area of organizational knowledge will contribute to the success of a project during the next year. This discussion is where the “rubber meets the road” in making the development come about. The manager and the mentor are prepared for their roles through orientation and training.

During the development planning meeting, Acceleration Pool members complete the first part of a Development Action Form for each of the areas to be developed. This form forces pool members to think about how they will achieve the targeted development (skills, behavior, knowledge), how they can apply the newly learned development targets on the job, and how they will measure the effectiveness of the application (ideally on job performance measures). This encourages pool members to focus on applying skills, behavior, and knowledge rather than on merely learning them in an abstract sense.

The manager and mentor can be a big help in the planning process by talking through issues and possibilities. More important, the meeting helps gain the manager’s and the mentor’s commitment to the pool member’s learning and skill application goals. This is important because the manager might have to add or take away job responsibilities or performance goals to facilitate development in an area. For example, a manager might assign managing the budgeting process to someone who needs a better understanding of the process and the organization’s long-range planning.

Discussions at the planning meeting and subsequent meetings allow the manager and mentor to provide support and ongoing coaching as needed. The meetings also allow the manager and mentor to remain in touch with the pool member’s personal and retention needs so those needs can be considered in the individual’s development plans and communicated, where appropriate, to higher management.

Mistake 6: No ongoing support and reinforcement by senior management

As stated earlier, senior management support is a crucial element in ensuring the success of any succession management system. If senior managers are not committed to their high flyers’ development, or if they allow themselves to become distracted by the daily challenges of the job, the succession management effort will eventually collapse.

Solution: Senior management must drive the system

For an Acceleration Pool system to succeed, support must come from the top, starting with the CEO. The CEO must take the lead in establishing the Acceleration Pool system, getting it off the ground, and driving it throughout the organization. The CEO must:

  • Define the outcomes expected from the succession management system.
  • Demand measurements of the system.
  • Ensure alignment with key stakeholders and organizational strategies.
  • Create a vision for the Acceleration Pool system and how it will operate.
  • Establish an executive team to drive the system.
  • See to it that the best people get nominated for the pool.
  • Make succession management activities a priority.
  • Personally encourage and coach senior managers to make decisions that benefit pool members’ development.
  • Act as a mentor for one pool member.
  • Consider Acceleration Pool members in all promotion decisions.
  • Make sure that diversity goals are met.
  • Meet one-on-one with pool members as often as possible.
  • Attend and participate in Acceleration Pool training events.

In addition, senior management and the Human Resource department must work together to make sure each pool member’s immediate manager and mentor dedicate the necessary time and energy.

There are several ways to do this.

  • Assign the pool member’s mentor to act as a catalyst between the manager and pool member and represent top management to the individual. The mentor, who typically is one level or higher in the organization than the immediate manager, can check on the pool member’s progress, see that all documentation is completed, and make sure the pool member is getting the planned learning opportunities. The mentor also can serve as the pool member’s link to top management.
  • Train managers in coaching, development planning, reinforcement, providing feedback, and other development skills. All of these effective leadership skills are critical to nurturing pool members’ growth. While immediate managers are in the best position to provide this support, many are unprepared to do it well. The organization can bolster managers’ leadership skills by sending them to a few days of behavior modeling training.
  • Schedule managers for computerbased refresher coaching. If it has been some time since managers have attended training to build their coaching skills, some organizations ask their leaders to brush up on their skills using computer -based training (CBT) courses. Many of these courses feature pre-course “mastery check” testing that allows participants to opt out of units in which they’ve demonstrated mastery of the concepts being taught. The advantages of CBT are many. Participants can proceed with this self-directed learning just in time, in just the right depth, while saving the company on travel, venue, and instructor costs.

One caution: Unless people are motivated, electronically delivered learning is not much more appealing than paper-and-pencil self-study. Our experience has been that unless there is something that creates learning tension, only about 20 percent will be motivated to actually start—and only half of that number will finish—their intended e-learning. You probably have experienced such tension—a strong psychological reason for completing the learning task. For example, on the night before delivering an important presentation, you are extremely open to learning. You’re focused and motivated—experiencing the “teachable moment.”

  • Send computer-generated reminders to managers regarding their commitments. Many organizations, such as BASF North America, use this tactic. Two weeks before an individual is scheduled to attend a training program, his or her manager receives an e-mail encouraging the manager to work with the person to set learning and application targets. More reminders are sent during and after the training.
  • Schedule special events for pool members, such as action learning, management briefings, and idea sharing. These programs reinforce pool members’ participation in the Acceleration Pool system because they:
    • Symbolically show that pool members are unique and important to the organization.
    • Bring pool members together so they can network and build relationships.
    • Put pool members in contact with top management, opening the door for future contact.
    • Provide unique content that is important to their success at the executive level or that relates to specific organizational initiatives.
    • Give pool members a feel for high-level decision making.
    • Facilitate team projects, such as action-learning projects.
    • Help pool members see how they stack up against their peers in the organization.

These unique Acceleration Pool programs often emphasize the unique strategic challenges facing top management. Organization-specific management games and case studies can be used to start discussions and spark insights.

CEOs must take the lead

Organizations can succeed in crafting successful succession management systems, but CEOs must get involved and stay involved over the long haul to make them work. Jack Welch has said that he spent 50 percent of his time as CEO of General Electric identifying and developing managers. Roger Enrico of Pepsi and many other PepsiCo executives are actively involved in the coaching and mentoring of high-potential individuals. A few years ago, David Whitwam, the CEO of Whirlpool Corporation, conducted mentor training as part of his company’s high-potential development program. Cisco Systems, meanwhile, holds periodic training for senior executives who coach high-potential individuals.

I am not suggesting that a CEO make succession management his or her top priority—just that it be recognized as a priority. The CEO and other executives must determine the priority relative to the organization’s short- and long-term goals. Then the CEO’s job is to see that the succession management program gets the appropriate attention and commitment of organizational resources.

Too often, the CEO fools himself or herself into thinking that things are going well relative to succession management, when in reality they aren’t. This often happens when the CEO delegates too much succession management responsibility to others. It’s perfectly appropriate for the CEO to get help from consultants or others in setting up the system and to delegate maintenance of the system to HR. But the CEO can delegate neither the attention required to create a “grow your own”organizational culture nor the support that the system demands.

To learn more about how to grow your own leadership talent...

More detailed information on how Acceleration Pools can uniquely meet the leadership needs of today’s organizations can be found in our book, Grow Your Own Leaders. The book also answers common questions about Acceleration Pools and Acceleration Centers, and expands on their general description found here.

Talk to an Expert: Taking Your Succession Management Plan into the 21st Century
* Denotes required field
Consent to DDI Marketing *

I consent to DDI emailing me, collecting my personal data, and processing that information in the provision of services and for the purposes of marketing and research. I am aware of my rights and the ways in which my data will be used as referenced in DDI’s Data Privacy Policy. I am aware I have the right to revoke this consent at any time.

Please enter the number this image
 Security code