Losing a valued employee is disappointing and can most certainly have a deleterious effect on an organization. Management and HR will typically work to retain the individual but, broadly speaking, the company will likely continue on with minimal disruption. Losing a leader however, depending on the level and scope of responsibility of that leader can lead to serious adverse outcomes for a business and much of the impact is determined by the response of management to the loss.
Typical reactions to the loss of a leader are to ask another employee to shoulder the load in addition to their current responsibilities, promote an existing employee to take on an expanded role as a development opportunity (temporarily or permanently) or possibly open a search to secure talent externally. In many cases the actual path is a combination of options.
Maybe the most common approach is to ask an existing employee to step up and assume the responsibilities of the departed leader. This process can cascade and before long you end up with a significant number of your leadership team in “new” roles. For those that remember, this is reminiscent of the 90’s when the boss got a new more powerful computer. There was a domino effect where his/her computer was passed down until one new computer led to many individuals adapting to a different computer. The productivity impact was significant when viewed in aggregate. The same can be said when applying “trickle-down” promotions when a senior leader leaves. The intent is to give up-and-coming talent a chance to develop but personnel development should be thoughtfully planned and not opportunistically exploited. Invariably, such an approach leads to the placement of talent in roles they are not ready for and the adverse impact on company performance can be long-lasting, significant and very difficult to reverse.
Establishing a Successful Talent Development Approach
Successful companies approach talent development with a rigor not too dissimilar from product development. Talent development is managed as a long-term project and leadership competencies are cultivated at all levels of the organization. Before leadership vacancies arise, planned or otherwise, a structured process is employed to evaluate potential candidates’ readiness and to fill gaps preparing them to take on additional challenges through a succession planning process. While not guaranteeing success, this approach does ensure that an organization’s best talent is always being readied for the next level and realization of long-term objectives are prioritized over quick resolution of short-term challenges.
The maturity of an organization’s talent development approach can be stressed when no internal candidate is recognized as being ready for a leadership vacancy once it occurs. Where the data and feedback from trusted staff indicate a need to proceed slowly and possibly even undertake an external search, there can be significant operating pressure that overwhelms good judgment. This is when corporate leaders are tested most and how they deal with this can have a lasting impact on company performance.
One might think that larger organizations would not encounter this challenge as frequently as small to mid-sized companies which is far from reality.
With today’s pressure on corporate earnings, companies of all sizes are using Lean principles to minimize waste and that absolutely includes stretching personnel to the maximum extent possible. In practice, margin challenged companies actually use unplanned vacancies as an opportunity to reallocate existing workloads across fewer staff using a Kaizen-like process.
A thoughtful talent development approach does work and companies should endeavor to undertake efforts to ensure their talent development process is adhered to with the same rigor that they would follow their product development process. When challenges in product development are inevitably encountered, project teams seek alternate solutions that give them options and then evaluate the various options for best “fit” with the project requirements. Company leadership should do the same thing when seeking to fill talent vacancies. When no direct solution is obvious an interim solution should be pursued that gives leadership time to evaluate options that provide the best long-term outcomes.
Project leaders are routinely held accountable for anticipating project challenges and developing strategies for ensuring those challenges don’t undermine project objectives. The best leaders approach leadership vacancies much as project managers approach project challenges. Without a direct resolution, an interim plan is deployed while a long-term solution can be pursued.