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Successful Successions - Planning For The Changing Of The Guard

Oct 19, 2007
In business there has been a lot of talk recently about baby-boomers looking to retire and who should they hand over the reigns to. This debate is great, but it neglects the general successions that happen all the time in business. By this I mean the sort of succession that happens:

* When a manager goes on holiday and someone steps into their shoes to fill in while they are away
* When someone gets promoted or transferred to another role
* When someone resigns

These sorts of successions happen almost every month in most businesses and yet very little thought is often given to managing the changing of the guard.

What generally happens is that on the last day (if lucky) the manager grabs the nearest person with a pulse and in their last half an hour in the building verbally downloads the status of projects/cases that they remember and then head out the door.

The person left behind has a page of dot point notes but no context for the information, generally no background and no understanding of the matters talked about. They didn't know enough about the cases or projects to ask sensible questions, to locate the files and emails on the computer and the filing cabinet and track down the contacts and phone numbers they need.

They just hope like heck they won't be called on while the person is away to answer any tough questions (and secretly hope that there is mobile phone reception where the manager is holidaying just in case they need to call).

Generally someone leaving on holiday or on promotion is not a surprise. So why do businesses always act as if it is a last minute thing? There has to be a better way!

There are three parts to effectively managing a succession

1. identifying suitable candidates to replace the manager
2. ensuring they have the skills and ability to fill the role
3. ensuring they have the content knowledge to take up the role with minimal downtime.

Here are some tips on things to consider when managing a succession.

Identifying suitable candidates

* Identifying someone can be as simple as talking with staff about "who thinks they are up for the role" or as complex as detailed assessments and profiling of potential candidates through a formal selection exercise. The rule of thumb is keeping the process as simple and transparent as possible.
* In all succession planning it is best to identify a few potential candidates for each critical role. People leave, take holidays and get caught up in their own projects so may not be released when needed. You need to have back-up plans in place.
* Be clear that identification of potential candidates does not mean automatic appointment when the position becomes vacant. You want to keep your options open in case the needs of the role change.
* You need to manage the fall-out from people who have NOT been identified as suitable. I have seen many such people leave a company once they have been branded as "not officer material".
* You may want to organise expressions of interest for each opportunity as it comes up rather than have a formal succession list as one strategy to keep things ticking over.

Skills & Ability

* The best technicians do not automatically make the best managers. Most people need some form of development to help them grow into management roles.
* As part of annual performance review processes you may want to consider building in formal management development processes for people who have the potential for succession.

Content Knowledge

* For many businesses knowledge management is just the information contained in people's heads. The trouble is when they walk out - all of their corporate knowledge goes with them. It needs to be captured.

All businesses - no matter whether they are small or large, need to think about knowledge management systems and processes. They need to consider documenting critical processes, procedures and contacts to stop this brain drain. Businesses are moving too fast now to allow long times to relearn information.

* Part of all managers' responsibilities should include documentation of critical knowledge, procedures and contacts. All critical files need clear notes on the status of each project and process. This can be through simple hand written progress notes, computer notations or formal knowledge management software.

There are also a number of experts out there that can help businesses get their critical processes documented if your business needs a hand getting started.

In conclusion, managers should be assessed as part of their annual review on their ability to groom successors, to manage successions smoothly and to cover their holidays without disaster. If they are held accountable for ensuring a smooth transition the last minute download will hopefully become a relic of the past.
About the Author
Ingrid Cliff is a Freelance Copywriter, Business Development and Human Resources Consultant to Small and Medium Businesses. Ingrid is the author of "Instant HR Policies and Procedures for Small and Medium Businesses" www.heartharmony.com.au
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