Developing a workable succession methodology

Companies that continually want to develop and move forward need diversity and original thinkers. Selecting a director from a diverse group of staff, who aren’t just like you, is one of the big challenges for leaders in succession planning. Trevor Crawley outlines a transparent model he has to be found successful.

As director of Opus International’s United Kingdom branch, I needed to ensure that we had credible applicants to succeed me on my return to New Zealand. I decided to try a different approach to the challenge.

Past experience had made me cautious about the succession process. It seemed that there were often the pitfalls of investing time and effort only to find that candidates weren’t suitable for, or interested, in the role.

Companies that continually want to develop and move forward need diversity and original thinkers. If I ascertained candidates’ suitability (according to my personal views) before any mentoring began, I would risk choosing candidates who were most like me and potentially clones of my management and leadership style.

To begin with, I needed to establish what the key skills for the director role were and what I wanted candidates to demonstrate at interview. This would provide the starting point for selecting a pool of possible successors.

Firstly, those selected needed to understand how the business functioned at a higher level than where they were currently operating. Secondly, they needed to know what the position entailed practically rather than based on their perception of what the director did.

This would mean that ultimately they’d be able to demonstrate their understanding of the business and develop their own ideas for improvements. These ideas would come from a strong knowledge base and be focused on getting the right results.

The outcome of my approach would rest on how candidates presented at interview and the decision of the interview panel. However, with my approach all candidates would have a level playing field. There was also always the chance of someone outside the group applying for the director role and making it to interview. If that occurred I was prepared to give these candidates a crash course.

Identifying the candidates
Having established my plan I now needed to identify likely candidates. As director, I had a good idea of who might comprise the group – essentially senior managers and a few others who showed potential as credible candidates.

I now needed to interview those selected so I could gauge their interest and outline what the programme would entail. The response was generally positive, ranging from candidates who didn’t see themselves as ready for the role, to questions about when the programme started, or those who simply didn’t want the director job. I also talked to staff who I believed had potential but who I thought were not yet ready for the role.

After these initial interviews five potential candidates emerged. It was now the time to formalise my thinking and gain support from my own CE so that the group were seen as credible candidates and treated as such when interviewed.

An overarching driver was to create a high calibre pool of applicants.

With approximately seven months until interviews, I had five months ahead of me to coach, mentor, assess and prepare candidates. To manage the programme I divided the director’s role into five distinct areas, amalgamating functions according to commonality or importance to business success.

During the programme each candidate would concentrate on one of these five functional areas for a month. During this time they would have access to all of the relevant information, and would help me with decision making and reporting. They would also be party to all communications and have access to key managers.
The candidates did not, however, have any accountability for outcomes – this remained clearly with me.

For example, when the end of the month financial results came in, the relevant candidate would receive a copy of each business unit’s profit and loss accounts. We would then discuss the outcomes, where the concerns were, what didn’t look right and which managers we needed to discuss the results with.

Any feedback I received on the reported accounts (adverse or otherwise) was then passed to the candidate. Additionally if I was telephoned on a business matter I would discuss the call with the relevant candidate.

At the end of each month the candidates met as a group and each would give a 30-minute presentation on what they had encountered, what had been learnt, what would have been done differently if the candidate was the director and any areas noted for improvement.

The presentations from my perspective could be quite challenging and the temptation at times to respond negatively was strong. (One-on-one feedback was also provided.)

Honest feedback
However, the presentations did create an environment for honest feedback and elicit great ideas. During their rotation through the functional business areas, each candidate had a unique learning experience. By sharing their ideas individually with the group, candidates gained an excellent idea of the challenges and rewards of each function.

An added bonus was the positive impact and new knowledge that the candidates brought to the management team. They had gained a far better understanding of the deadlines that needed to be met, why business and strategic planning was important and the challenges of human resources when applied across all parts of the business.
As well, they better understood that the boss also had a boss. This made them aware that in their current roles, they were largely protected from many of the demands that were put on the UK director role.

Therefore, in a relatively short space of time the programme built business capability, creating a very strong management team. If I was away I knew I had five great deputies to select from, reassured that whoever stepped up could also rely on four other very capable staff for support.

Where are the five now? One has left the company. Another applied successfully for a management position in New Zealand shortly before the programme concluded and has been promoted twice since. One decided the job wasn’t for him, one is now the director and another is now his very good deputy. 

I would rate this model as a success and would certainly repeat the exercise given similar circumstances.

A confidant outside the business would have helped both in testing the way the functional areas of the business were divided up and would also have helped with feedback and support when I questioned my own decisions and abilities.

This transparent model meant staff from all parts of the business knew that there was a workable succession methodology in place. It also helped greatly with talent identification as the pool of candidates wasn’t necessarily confined to a senior management team. The programme could easily be implemented at any level of a business to ensure that top talent can see a clear progression path. 

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