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Redrawing Your Succession Plans in a World Disrupted by COVID-19

Redrawing Your Succession Plans in a World Disrupted by COVID-19

Story Highlights

  • Top talents contribute disproportionately to a company's success
  • Retaining talent is more important now than before the coronavirus
  • You may not need a complete overhaul; rework these key areas

Companies are slowly but surely coming to grips with the economic and social devastation that COVID-19 is wreaking. Many are rebuilding, preparing for the eventual return to regular business, and taking a good look at their people, processes, and systems. Some of these clearly need modification.

Succession management is one of them. While it might be important to activate emergency succession planning for vital C-suite roles, companies must also devote equal attention to ensuring there is a focus on identifying future leaders -- specifically in mission- and operation-critical roles. These leaders will undoubtedly be a significant competitive advantage as you return to regular business. Solely focusing on emergency executive succession planning is shortsighted and not very different than "replacement planning." But retaining, developing and leveraging future talent is even more important than it was a quarter ago -- this is the time to redraft your succession planning process for maximal results.

Reimagine the talent review.

First, reviews don't have to be a gathering of executives in a wearying two-day meeting. Discussions of rising talents, progression and succession decisions can be done virtually and in shorter sessions over the course of a week or so.

Leveraging digital technology and platforms can build downtime into the process, allowing executives a chance to reflect. But it also permits remote talent assessments, video field reports and video interviews.

That's a boon because it allows you to chisel away at the biases that tend to influence reviews. The proximity bias, the incorrect conflation of physical presence with superior work, is one of the most common and pernicious. Leaders must go deeper and wider than their local workplace to identify their best talent. Actively look for stories of leadership success from the front lines of your organization, including off-site, contingent and "gig" talent.

The crisis has revealed the best in us -- and the best of us. The operational leaders who kept your distribution supply chain running against all odds and through sheer ingenuity, or the R&D leader who managed to keep their team focused on your most critical product development centers -- they aren't proximal but they are rare talents. And they should be included in your talent review.

Prioritize barrier removal.

Top talents contribute disproportionately to a company's success -- even more so in complex jobs. A McKinsey survey showed that in highly complex occupations, high performers are an astounding 800% more productive than lower performers.

This crisis probably put a heavy load on your best talent. Besides their own work, they are likely involved in task forces, response teams and strategic projects.

Interestingly, a 2017 Gallup study conducted in Japan to uncover the causes of karoshi -- or "death by overwork or job-related exhaustion" -- found that employees whose CliftonStrengths profile featured the theme of Adaptability (or Command or Empathy or Belief) in their Top 5 were more likely to experience high levels of stress than others. Those with Adaptability are known to react to the urgent needs of others. It goes to show that people tend to gravitate toward those most likely to solve their problems.

And the highly talented have been solving a lot of problems lately.

Because they are often tapped to help, those with high talent can easily become overburdened and burned out, at great cost to their organizations. Gallup analytics show that turnover among highly talented employees who are not engaged is on par with low-talent, disengaged employees.

Managing them better requires helping them shepherd their energy and maximize their strengths by focusing their efforts on the right objectives all while prioritizing their wellbeing.

Ask them about the barriers that stall their productivity or cause unnecessary stress. Provide them with constant coaching and advice. Help them see how what they do contributes to the company's mission.

And keep their aspirations in mind. Predictive talent analytics are essential in your search for the critical talent you know you need for your future -- but it also helps your rising leaders identify their own best career options.

Many are undoubtedly reflecting on how their careers might change given the uncertain future. Remove obstacles, broaden perspectives, manage stress, and support them in their quest as they envision their roles, their contributions, and their careers.

Expect more from coaching.

Coaching is an essential investment in the growth of a leader at any time, perhaps more so during crises. Expectations of leadership are higher than ever now: the need to think outside the box or make critical decisions that might fail or make tough choices about pay cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. Times like these are when leaders need coaching the most.

Because it helps leaders focus on their own development, executive coaching makes leaders more effective for business as usual too -- though preparing for business as usual could turn out to be woefully inadequate given the highly unpredictable future leaders are likely to face.

So coaches must push leaders harder -- challenge them to think differently, to abandon fixed mindsets and preconceived notions. And it needs to integrate objective data and analytics, which will help leaders make sense of their experiences today and make the critical decisions that will impact the organization's future.

Times like these are when leaders need coaching the most.

Ideally, your talent management coaching should be highly individualized. It ought to integrate an understanding of each leader's strengths, values, and beliefs into the business, organizational, and personal disruptions they will continue to face.

Leverage the power of experiential development.

Gallup's research has always underscored the value of turning-point experiences in leadership development. And if nothing else, this crisis presents us all with inescapable essential learning. Most of your top talent will look to reinvent their careers at some point, so opportunities that stress test their leadership caliber will be vital.

Start by assessing your talent's most significant experiential gaps. A lot is unpredictable right now -- though leadership development has never been a linear process -- but opportunities to fill those gaps abound in a crisis. Indeed, no simulations can provide the lived challenges and scenarios like COVID-19 has. Make the best of it by taking advantage of the rich learning this time offers your leaders.

Strategically plan the world they will lead.

The focus of talent management has always been on mission and operation critical roles -- positions that keep the organizational machinery going. The COVID-19 disruption is changing how companies look at their future.

The advent of digital technology in a global market has already disrupted everything, but COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of previously sluggish digital transformations, organizational structures, working remotely, adaptive virtual working, and other future-focused initiatives. Your top talent will be glad to find opportunities to grow even amid the crisis.

Most of your top talent will look to reinvent their careers at some point, so opportunities that stress test their leadership caliber will be vital.

So, besides looking at critical roles, companies must map future critical roles -- positions that will create value in previously untapped areas over the next 10 years. Those roles will require very distinct skillsets: adaptive leadership, a global view, design thinking, critical thinking, and -- importantly -- a powerful facility for data analysis and insights. In the age of "fake news," the ability to decode bias, quash rumors and see through subjectivity is crucial.

As you design new organizational systems, processes or policies, ensure they will enable, not disable, your top talent. This isn't all about digital transformation -- though that's an essential investment -- it's about a truly agile way of working that allows your top talent to thrive.

Doing work "the way it's always been done" bogs down talent and tends to stifle their creativity and initiative.

Develop future-ready leaders.

The mounting human and economic costs of the pandemic will be felt for years to come. The world is looking at an uncertain future, and the pandemic has made clear the incredible fragility of human life, of economies, marketplaces and workplaces.

There will be many more challenges -- seismic technological shifts that will reshape business again, disruptive ecological changes, and maybe future biological threats, like COVID-19, that may jeopardize our way of life.

In the age of "fake news," the ability to decode bias, quash rumors and see through subjectivity is crucial.

That's the world your leaders will live in. And it starts getting built as soon as your back-to-work strategy is implemented. Using the right strategy for talent redeployment and talent configuration will be a significant competitive advantage as economies and markets return.

So, revising your succession management program can't be delayed long, nor can it be a people initiative housed under HR or an opaque system aimed mainly at plugging succession gaps in the top two levels of your organization. Your future leaders greatly influence how quickly and profitably your business returns to normalcy.

And an effective succession management program can help build you a better "normal" than the one the pandemic ended.

Make leaving your company unimaginable.


Vibhas Ratanjee is Senior Practice Expert, Organizational and Leadership Development, at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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