For a Healthier Pipeline of Future Leaders, Tackle These 5 Succession Threats

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Increasing automation and digitalization, the necessity of new skills and competencies, new generations joining and leaving the workforce: Today’s organizations face a host of novel challenges as they navigate a rapidly evolving economic environment. In these tumultuous times, a solid bench of leaders and a robust succession management process are more crucial than ever before.

Unfortunately, HR executives are struggling to develop top-quality leadership talent, which undermines their leadership benches. In fact, Gartner’s “Future of HR 2020 Survey” reveals that 37 percent of HR executives are struggling to build successful senior leaders, while 45 percent are having a hard time developing mid-level leaders. What’s more, only 50 percent of the 2,800 HR leaders surveyed said they felt well equipped to lead their organizations in the future.

To ensure a high-quality supply of leadership talent, as well as bench strength and efficiency over time, HR leaders must address these five fundamental succession risks:

1. Vacancies Lead to a Lapse in Time-Critical Leadership Responsibilities

No one denies that it is a challenge to find a candidate who is a perfect match for a role — especially if that role is a leadership role. However, rather than holding out for an ideal match, HR leaders must focus on finding a best-fit leader who shows the basic skills needed. Then, HR leaders can pair that person with other leaders to share responsibilities based on complementary skill sets.

Partnering leaders with similar strengths and competencies — what Gartner calls “complementary leadership” — allows organizations to dynamically fill critical skill gaps at speed. This way, leadership responsibilities don’t fall by the wayside as the search for a candidate drags on.

Furthermore, complementary leadership also drives business success: Gartner analysis shows that organizations using complementary leadership can realize a 60 percent increase in team performance and a 40 percent increase in the performance of individual leaders.

2. Successors Are Ill-Equipped to Take on New Roles

According to a recent survey from Gartner, 81 percent of HR leaders cite a lack of preparation as a top reason why a high-potential candidate was unable to fill a leadership position. Increasingly shorter tenures at organizations, a growing gig economy, and the shifting generational makeup of the workforce are driving leadership roles to change more rapidly than before. HR leaders must ensure successors are prepared so that leadership gaps can be filled as they arise.

It’s important to note that, given the evolving nature of business, succession pipelines should prepare candidates to execute against both current and future business needs. Organizations can use scenario planning to identify likely future experiences that leaders will need to address as the company evolves, and then incorporate training for those experiences into their succession pipelines.

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3. Instead of Being Built Solely on Existing Positions, Succession Planning Must Recognize Future Business Needs

Succession management plans usually focus on training candidates to fill existing leadership roles. However, over the past three years, the average organization has experienced five enterprise-wide changes, and 73 percent of organizations expect more initiatives for change ahead. To be effective in this environment, a succession plan must anticipate the leadership demands of changing business priorities.

Progressive HR functions follow a demand-driven succession management strategy that focuses on planning for future leadership needs. Preparing for future leadership positions has nearly twice the impact on leadership bench strength, compared to preparing only for current leadership roles. According to Gartner data, just 15 percent of executives view their HR teams as successful in preparing for future leadership opportunities.

4. A Homogeneous Pipeline Can Harm the Culture and Performance of the Company

Many organizations struggle to build diversity across their leadership teams. In a recent Gartner survey, 88 percent of leaders in diversity and inclusion described “promotions and/or succession” as one of the most bias-prone talent processes. In fact, more than half of the diversity and inclusion leaders identified “influencing succession planning efforts” as a top priority in 2019.

While evidence continues to mount that diversity improves culture and performance, organizations are recognizing that a homogeneous succession pipeline presents significant risks to the bottom line. In order to diversify their pipelines, leading organizations must separate the successor’s role from candidates themselves. Assess qualifications first and the candidate second, and you’ll be more likely to fill your succession pipeline with a more diverse field of talent.

5. Failure to Align Succession Process With Organizational Culture Can Create Mistrust Between Employees and Leaders

Seventy-one percent of employees believe their employers should be more transparent, according to Gartner research. That transparency should extend into succession planning. If the workings of your succession pipeline are opaque, employees may begin to doubt the organization’s choices and distrust the leadership selection process.

To execute more accountable succession strategies, it is important for organizations to understand their corporate cultures and employee needs. Companies with cultures that enable open conversation, knowledge sharing, and psychological safety see many advantages, including more customer brand loyalty, increased profits, and a better working environment for employees.

For HR leaders to ensure their succession pipelines remain healthy, they must start by reevaluating their current efforts. Set future leaders up for success with a strategy that works for your organization’s needs today and tomorrow.

Sari Wilde is managing vice president of Gartner‘s HR practice.

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Sari Wilde, managing vice president in Gartner's HR practice, is responsible for managing global teams focused on creating research and products to improve human capital outcomes. Sari's focus areas include current and future leadership, critical skills and competencies, recruiting, and HR technology. She has been studying organizations for more than 15 years, advising executives at hundreds of Fortune 500 companies on their leadership and talent management practices.