succession planning the ceo magazine
Samantha Howland, Senior Managing Partner, Decision Strategies International 

Many organizations face a critical talent transition over the next decade. As experienced, senior leaders reach retirement age, trustees and senior executives cite succession planning as a crucial challenge considering the risks and requirements for smooth leadership transitions.

Whether through internal promotion or external hires, many companies are currently investing in shoring up a senior leadership pipeline that identifies and readies more candidates for the C-suite. Given the long-term implications of this type of investment, companies must carefully consider the right development process for this pool of talent. While there is no singular formula, there are four guiding principles that will lead to its success.

1.  Identify and Build Future-Focused Competencies

It is not enough that future executive leaders bring purely functional expertise and decades of experience to a role at the top. When considering who will be the best fit to take the company stewardship forward, it is imperative to define the competencies that senior leaders will need in the future. Undoubtedly the industry and competitive set will be different than what it was or is today; and a profile of success must reflect the competitive dynamics the next generation will face. Developing executives must take the long-view, recognizing distinct skills, behaviors, expertise and experience that will serve the organization best down the road.

To build future-oriented capabilities:

  • Take field trips to visit companies outside of the industry as an information exchange.
  • Pursue conference learning to gain exposure beyond core responsibility areas and connect with a broader group of cross-industry leaders.
  • Practice strategy, vision building and innovative growth moves in the context of your current span of control.

2. Assess Strategic Capabilities

When building mid-level leaders, high-performing functional experts often ascend to management ranks. While management courses can help these candidates build the skills necessary to lead others, even more critical to the identification of senior level high potentials is the importance of understanding who can work across the enterprise, navigate complex systems, envision long-term positioning and effectively represent the company externally in the market. Using a strategic leadership framework can help assess and evaluate candidates who exhibit the core competencies of successful strategic leaders — the ability to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn —and their potential to develop these attributes.

To assess and build strategic capabilities:

  • Evaluate the leadership pool against a proven strategic thinking framework.
  • Provide candidates detailed feedback on areas for development. 
  • Assign leaders to a business challenge that requires cross-functional leadership, and use this experience to focus on strategic capability building.

3. Take an Enterprise Development Perspective

Sending an individual leader to a one- or two-week business school course can offer significant exposure and insight, but the experiences are often hard to translate back to the business when attendees are enrolled as individuals without the support of a cohort. Rather than focus on individual candidates when investing in the leadership pipeline, development is often most successful when it builds a cadre of leaders that can collaborate, build consensus and embed core capabilities within their organizational realms.

Executive talent building also must shift from a traditional view of training as a set of courses or event-driven content to an ongoing process of building through assessment, targeted learning interventions, stretch experiences, tailored assignments, ongoing feedback and adaptation.

To build talent through group development:

  • Integrate executive programming that targets the discreet competency building areas as parts of a whole.
  • Use case-based methods to connect theory with problem solving and connection back to real-time challenges in the business or industry.
  • Frame business challenge projects to tackle critical issues while offering a structured format for assessment, practice and feedback on particular competency areas.

4.  Evaluate and Adapt Your Approach

Like any disciplined process, developing senior talent requires consistent evaluation for results — program results, leaders’ competency progress and value created for the business along the way. Return on value for the individual and company commitment must be part of a disciplined march toward filling the pipeline of senior ranking leadership. Pipeline management is recognized as a core requirement for managing sales opportunities for a business, focusing efforts on the most strategic wins. Similarly, talent pipeline management should be treated as a high-value activity, instilling focus on the most effective interventions and experiences.

To effectively evaluate your development efforts:

  • Track ideas that resulted from the development process and contributed to business performance.
  • Measure project results as a means for recognition, and individual and corporate learning.
  • Capture executive feedback on candidates to connect the development process with growth potential.

Just as future executive leadership will be forced to adapt to and leverage changing conditions, the development process itself should be a reflection of the highest value interventions that drive impact for the business over time. A winning strategy includes a versatile, diverse development model that supports future-focused competency building, instills strategic leadership skills, creates enterprise value and delivers near term and long-term impact potential.

About the Author

Samantha Howland, DSI Senior Managing Partner, has spent her career at the intersection of strategy and talent development. Through her consulting work, Samantha has helped a wide variety of organizations build their strategic leadership capability and their strategy agendas, including major healthcare players such as GSK, Merck, and J&J, financial services organizations including six of the twelve Federal Reserve banks, and other Fortune 500s such as Comcast and GE. She has also worked extensively with national associations like the American Heart Association, the American Marketing Association, and Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) using tools like future industry studies to encourage big-picture thinking, innovation and dynamic growth for their organizations and professional members.


Alana Drusset's picture
We can be so wrapped up in the issues of today that it can be hard to look towards the future. What you need in a leader now may not be the same as what you will need in a future leader. While deciding who would be the best type of leader, one should remember the desired traits of now and the anticipated traits that will be needed for the future.
Will James's picture
I would be very cautious about hiring a new leader from outside of the company. This person doesn't know what it is like to work for that company and start from the bottom. Whenever possible, leaders should be chosen from candidates already employed by the company who have proven their talents and show that they could handle being a leader there.

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