Most of the best HR practitioners I know preach the merits of succession planning—and I’ll freely admit they are mostly correct. The active preparation of personnel for their next steps within an organization is critical to future success. However, succession planning is no panacea. I sat through many talent management review sessions where we worked diligently to identify the best talent and ensure they were being given the best development opportunities. Even with all that preparation, when an unplanned leadership vacancy occurred and we most needed succession planning to “work” there magically didn’t seem to be such a long list of “ready now” candidates. Whether managers had checked the boxes to fulfill their obligations or there just was not yet a prepared viable candidate, the need still existed and at that point succession planning can do no more to help the situation.
Murphy’s law would suggest that unplanned leadership vacancies will occur at the most inopportune times. Looking a bit deeper, unplanned leadership vacancies are actually more likely to occur when companies are experiencing turmoil, just when the need for stable leadership is the greatest. It is in these circumstances where succession planning is most likely to fail to offer meaningful candidates. Succession planning works best in thoughtful transitions and unplanned vacancies are anything but thoughtful. While the idiom “trial by fire” is often used to justify the placement of unprepared “high potential” talent into unplanned vacancies, the practice puts the company and the high potential candidate at risk. Even if the candidate was successful it’s hard to shake the “you weren’t ready when you got this job” label. If the candidate is not successful in the new role the naysayers feel emboldened to speak out against talent development in the future, unfairly holding back good candidates.
The Challenges with an Executive Search Firm Approach
To manage situations when a suitable candidate does not exist within the company, firms frequently turn to executive search firms to identify talent with the requisite skills and competencies to best fill the vacancy. While seemingly expensive, if the right talent is secured the impact on the organization can be extremely positive. A critical role is filled with exceptional talent, a new perspective is introduced into the organization and your talent development process can continue to cultivate next generation leaders at an organic pace.
The challenge is that companies are often pressured by timelines or by the search firm into accepting a marginal candidate. Typically, the approach to undertake an external search involves one or more existing managers taking on added responsibilities in an interim role. As the search progresses and time elapses these managers become increasingly stretched with the added responsibilities and start to cut corners, jeopardizing future business performance. The more the timeline extends the more pressure there is to “fill the role” so the impact on other company leadership is minimized.
I’ve found that search firms can also impart pressure as they desire to earn their placement fees. As time goes by and their candidate list is exhausted, they risk not earning the fee so they look to encourage the firm to revisit the more interesting candidates. One might encounter a similar experience in larger companies where the talent management process leads to push candidates which on paper are candidates that are deemed “ready now” by other parts of the organization for new assignment. As the search progresses the internal organization advances these push candidates more assertively. Admittedly, there are times when the candidate successfully fills the role (either a search firm candidate or a push candidate). However, if the candidate is not a good fit it can take months or even years to unwind the decision and at significant cost to the organization.
Bridging the Gap with an Interim Leadership Approach
In many cases there is a legitimate and unmet market need for “interim leadership” that can temporarily fill these key leadership roles while the company undertakes the search to permanently fill the role. These “hired guns” would most certainly need sufficient real-world experience to be able to effectively function in the interim role and would also need to work closely with other members of the leadership team to ensure they were keeping the performance engine appropriately tuned but not imparting unnecessary change. Their role would be nothing more and nothing less than to ensure stability through the transition, however long that may be, and in so doing buy time to find or develop an effective replacement. Such an interim solution can counter the effects of Murphy’s law by minimizing the stress on the remaining staff while working to provide an effective long-term solution.