Staff Development

Steps to Effective Succession Management

November 21, 2018 5:08 pm

Healthcare leaders should use specific approaches to develop succession strategies that ensure their organization has effective contingency plans in place.

Executives seemingly would rather talk about death and taxes than plan for who will succeed them. This is not surprising. Contemplating the idea of voluntarily or involuntarily leaving the organization or of not being able to perform duties due to health challenges is not pleasant. As such, most of us tend to deny the inevitable and procrastinate on this issue because of fear over sending a signal to ourselves, our loved ones, our bosses, our colleagues, our direct reports, and our competitors that the “end is in sight.”

Yet succession management is critical to the ongoing operations of your organization. Healthcare organizations such as The Johns Hopkins Hospital were launched in the late 1800s yet continue today in part because capable leaders were able to pick up the ball where others dropped it.

To act as a fiduciary and as a strategic leader, you have a duty to establish who shall maintain your role after you leave, regardless of the circumstances. If your gut reaction is that you are irreplaceable, then please recognize that you are not. If your instinct says that nobody is ready yet, then build your leadership bench strength. If you despise the individual who may step into your role, then remember that succession management transcends your feelings towards others—it’s about fundamentally leaving the organization in a position to continue and improve on your legacy, and perhaps even to creatively destruct your legacy.

If your response is that nobody cares about the organization or the role more than you, consider  that perhaps you can’t read the “hearts, minds, and souls” of your colleagues as well as you think. If you think you’re healthy, strong, robust, and resilient, then most likely you are—until you’re not (and all of us will eventually leave this world).

In short, our emotions may cause us to resist succession planning. However, smart decision making involves more than emotional reasoning—cognitive reasoning plays a part as well. Effective succession management should be grounded in strategic decision making.

I recently heard a provost of a major university say, “We are planning for the next 150 years of our history.” Are you planning for a time when you will no longer be in your current position or with the organization, or perhaps in the profession at all? Effective succession management is strategically important because:

  • It ensures ongoing realization of the organization’s vision, mission, and strategic priorities.
  • It prevents needless uncertainty, ambiguity, volatility, and stress among those who otherwise would not be prepared if you suddenly depart.
  • It develops bench strength.

Three Dimensions of Succession Management

Effective succession management encompasses three dimensions: the individual, other individuals, and the organization. Leaders should apply the following broad approaches to each.

Yourself. Assess your emotional intelligence in the context of how you are embracing or resisting your own succession. Be honest and candid with yourself about your career, your finances, your social standing, your competitive standing, and your health and well-being.

Others. Gauge whether you may be holding back your talent from moving forward in the organization or developing further. Embrace compassionate honesty and candor with others regarding their potential in the organization.

The organization. Make succession management a leadership priority, and tie incentives to the achievement of specific succession-management goals. View succession management as a risk management strategy to prepare for leadership transitions, M&A-related transitions, and unknown changes that may be in store.

Initial Steps to Take

On a more practical note, the following steps can help you begin to formulate your strategic succession-management process, with actions items for the next 90 days.

  • Identify barriers to succession management for you and your organization, such as perceived irreplaceability, a lack of accountability by the board in succession management, and a lack of education and training in the logistics of developing a succession plan.
  • Determine your likely departure date from your current position and/or the organization.
  • Conduct talent reviews and identify who is ready to replace you or assume a position of greater responsibility.
  • Engage in conversations with individuals who are not yet ready about how you will support them in getting ready, and with individuals who likely never will be ready due to a poor fit with the job, their team, or the organization.
  • Partner with internal and/or external talent development experts to build your leadership bench strength.
  • Talk with your supervisors about their succession management plan for you and what you need to do to get ready for the next move, whether that is up, across, or out.
  • Embrace your role as a talent/career developer.

In conclusion, organizations run smoothly day to day with effective operational leadership. And organizations can be assured of continuing to run smoothly if there is effective succession-management leadership, beginning with you. Your organization is depending on you to get it ready for what is sure to come: the future.

Marty Martin, PsyD, MPH, MSc, is a full professor, Department of Management & Entrepreneurship, Driehaus College of Business, DePaul University, Chicago.


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