10 Ways to Strengthen Your Leadership Pipeline

Your talent pipeline is your future. You need to make sure you have management continuity and provide a path to attract, motivate and retain aspiring high potentials--they will want to see a strong track record of successfully grooming talent. It's also the best way to ensure that you have people who know your strategy, operations, and your culture.

Through my 30-plus years of working with Fortune 50 companies on down to mid-size organizations, here are the ten key factors that I've seen make a difference in quality of succession:

  1. As the leader, you should be the driver and chief architect of your succession planning. Work with HR supporting you or in partnership with you, but they should not lead succession planning. This is not an administrative exercise--it's one of the top concerns for CEOs like Jack Welch at GE, Ursula Burns at Xerox, and Larry Page at Google. Those top CEOs take the lead, so should you.
  2. Don't restrict your thinking to just candidates inside the company -- you don’t want the best of what you’ve got, you want the best fit for each position. What are you doing to identify external leadership talent? How are you going to either grow or acquire the talent you'll need?
  3. Don’t begin by identifying potential candidates for each position, but by identifying the competencies required for each position in the foreseeable future. Job requirements will evolve as the company evolves and current candidates may not pack the gear to handle future challenges. So given where you are taking your company, what will you need in each key position, and what are you doing today to make sure you have those skills?
  4. Pay particular attention to the key steps in a manager or leader’s career growth. For example, the step from individual contributor to supervisor is important and should get much more support than most companies provide. Other subsequent steps such as moving from a manager to a functional manager, or a functional manager to a general manager have their own unique challenges and are important for the same reasons. As you develop people, make sure that these key pivot points, and the competencies they require, are addressed.
  5. Don’t rely on just opinions to make assessments. Look at education, prior levels of responsibility, key decisions made, and demonstrated leadership attributes. Have HR put together data sheets for each key potential candidate. Focus more on demonstrated achievements and behaviors, and less on hypothetical conjectures and opinions.
  6. Group meetings can be extremely valuable if well conducted. Getting together to share lists of replacement candidates is pretty much a waste of time. The real value is in developing a group perspective on a talent mindset and development. I frequently see vastly different perspectives about candidates. You need to reconcile those into one shared view.
  7. Succession plans by themselves offer little value. The real value is in knowing where you stand in bench strength including obvious weaknesses. And plans to correct weakness, and targeted development for key people are worthless unless there is focused action. That's where the value is. Particularly unacceptable are plans along the lines of "Find a seminar to address...."
  8. You will learn a lot when you see the potential candidates each leader identifies for his/her position. Some of that learning you won’t like. "Next in line" is a major mistake in many cases. Sometimes the best candidates for a given position are smart, inquisitive types who learn fast and are currently somewhere else in the organization. That's what Google did when they replaced their top HR person, for example.
  9. Hold leaders accountable and recognize/reward them for follow-on succession actions including development of people. The role of leaders is to get results through others and to grow the value of people to the organization. A manager who is not developing people is only doing part of the job.
  10. Demonstrate your leadership by being the first to identify your own potential candidates and by putting in place targeted development plans to better prepare them. Nothing accelerates change faster than the leader demonstrating the desired behaviors.

Key Steps in Succession Planning

I've found the following steps to be very effective for all size organizations.

Step 1: Define a leadership process model to fit your organization’s needs.
Step 2: Identify standards for performance and potential and communicate them in your organization.
Step 3: Identify potential candidates and assemble relevant information.
Step 4: Evaluate potential succession candidates using standards and facts to have a hearty discussion among senior leaders sharing perspectives.
Step 5: Create development prescriptions, discuss with candidates and build them into action plans.
Step 6: Review the plans and development progress every six months or at least annually.