This is a loaded question — Yes or no, depending on the person.
Succession planning, despite the recent emergence of contrarian views, is still a good exercise to go through. Once you’ve done the analysis, completed the profiles and have your charts ready to go, the critical question remains whether you:
- Tell a person he/she is part of a succession plan;
- What their status is (ready now, ready within two years, capable of ascending two levels, etc.); and,
- What positions you potentially have them slotted towards.
You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Keep it secret, and you risk losing the benefits of the mentoring that can occur as part of being included in a mentoring program, not to mention the retention factor that can present itself by ensuring an individual knows you think highly of them and have plans for them.
Of course, telling a person they’re a part of the plan, and what that means, can work against you over time. Take a look at companies like GE for proof, where talented executives leading billion-dollar operations left the mother ship when they found out three to four years in advance that they were out of the “replace Jack Welch” sweepstakes. Additionally, see the Brett Favre saga for the havoc an incumbent can have on an organization when pre-agreed on retirement timelines fall to the wayside.
With that in mind, I’m an advocate of the following communications plan with succession plans:
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- Tell them they are a part of a special group. A pack of people you believe will emerge as leaders in the company.
- Develop a customized development plan for them. Tell them what knowledge, skills and abilities you are trying to grow within them, and tell them what types of broad job responsibilities you can see them moving into over time.
- Never tell them they are “next up” for any job, or tell them they are slotted for any job. Too much can change. The CEO can go on an outside drive for talent. You may need them where they are when a promotional opportunity comes up. The incumbent may stay in the targeted slot until he/she is on their second set of dentures. Bad stuff.
- Never give them time frames or capability assessments like “two level potential.” See the notes on No. 3 for why. Start providing time frames or target jobs, and you create timing expectations that may turn into retention issues.
So, tell them you love them, but say you love them generally (not for a specific position) and forever (meaning they shouldn’t expect the big diamond ring at any point in the next two years).
And don’t forget to take them out to lunch. Let them order off the menu, no buffet.
Unless you’re in Vegas…