The biggest problem that many businesses face is that they rely on a reactive approach to talent management and succession planning. If a senior member of the team is leaving, for example, often there is no plan in place to anticipate this, and only when the announcement is made are efforts made to fill the resulting knowledge gap.

It’s understandable why this occurs, businesses are naturally cautious about making predictions about the future, but when it comes to effective talent management, a reactive approach is not enough. It leaves businesses vulnerable at a time when they need stability most; the loss of a highly seasoned worked who holds decades worth of experience and knowledge in their mind, and their mind alone, will inevitably leave a huge hole in a business, that not only needs to be filled, but filled quickly. If you haven’t planned for this eventuality, then you are risking your business’ growth.

All organisations would like to think that the talent they recruit and invest in will stay loyal and that their knowledge will be forever applied within that organisation, but the reality is that things change; people change careers, they become parents, they move locations, they get sick. There are so many things that could happen which would leave gaps in your highly skilled workforce, that adopting a reactive approach to succession planning is simply asking for trouble.

But how can you prevent this? You obviously can’t predict the future and you can’t control what people do, so how can you effectively manage your talent and create a seamless succession process that means it doesn’t take months to recover when someone leaves?

The proactive approach

Document what you can

It’s a laborious process and many organisations tire quickly of trying to stay on top of new updates, but documenting procedures and processes is vital. This is especially true if they are managed by a specific person or team. This will be important not only for permanent departures, but for any short term leave that people take. How many organisations experience near meltdown when one of their employees goes off sick and no one else knows what to do? It’s a common scenario, but one that can be easily avoided if things are documented and communicated properly. This approach means that when you do have to fill a void left by a knowledgeable employee, there are resources available that can help ease the strain.

Know who you’ve got

It is absolutely essential that an organisation knows who they have within their existing workforce if they want to effectively manage their staff. You cannot achieve this without this knowledge and if a situation presents itself where you need to replace an employee, you may spend valuable time and resources looking externally, when the ideal candidate already exists within your business. This can be tricky in a large organisation, but it’s far from impossible. It will require a collaborative effort between senior leaders, line managers and HR to actively map out who makes up your current workforce and how they can potentially support your succession plan.

Know where they are going

For some organisations the demographic of their workforce is currently on the precipice of big change; many engineering organisations for example, have a huge proportion of employees who will soon be looking to retire. While this is a worrying position to be in, it is better than the alternative, where employers have no prior warning about upcoming workforce changes. Of course a retiring population is a relatively easy one to track; you know your employees’ age and hence can roughly estimate when they may leave (assuming they don’t do so before). But for effective talent management you need to be able to ascertain this information for your whole workforce. Unfortunately in order to do this, you need to get people to tell you, and this requires a genuine culture of trust, openness and collaboration. In a culture that demonstrates all of these things, employees will feel more comfortable in stating what their desired progression path is, and you can not only support them in achieving this more effectively (and hopefully prevent them leaving your business), but you can also start proactively planning should they elect to leave. It’s also important to remember that succession planning isn’t just about filling gaps when people leave your business completely. If an employee wishes to change roles or departments, while they will remain an employee in your business, they will still leave a gap when they transition over.

Encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing

The distinctions that exist between departments and teams in a business are a common barrier to effective talent management and succession planning. People are recruited into a specific role with a specific team and rarely are they encouraged to venture outside of this territory. This may seem like an effective way to manage staff, but not if you are trying to proactively plan for the future. Encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing between teams, individuals and departments is absolutely essential for proactive succession planning. Not only does it mean more people will have an understanding of the overall workings of the business, there may also be employees in one department who are ideally suited to take up the reigns or suggest improvements in another area. If you don’t let people explore the wider business and discuss what they do and how they can help each other, you will never know who may be a suitable candidate within your own team to step up and take over when knowledge gaps occur.

Plan for where you want to be

One of the most important things you can do to proactively manage your talent pipeline is to base your plans on where you want to be, not where you are now. Every business will have aspirations to change in some capacity, whether it is delivering a new product, going global or looking to change their client base. This means every organisations will (or should) have an action plan and roadmap that demonstrates how this will happen, and when it comes to talent management this is where your efforts should be directed. Yes, you still need individuals who understand the day to day running of your current business, but you also need people available who can bridge the gap as you move forward into your new area of focus. If someone who is highly experienced leaves and creates a gap in knowledge, whether you have a replacement ready to go or not, it could be the ideal time to push for changes that will drive your business towards where you want to be. It doesn’t

matter who it is; if it’s someone who has been managing the front of house for 20 years or an engineer working on specific projects for 40 years, use their departure to reinvigorate that part of the business. It’s obviously important to retain the elements of day to day working, but the void left by one individual doesn’t have to be filled by a carbon copy, use the opportunity to advance towards where you want to be.

Talent management and succession planning are key areas of focus for many organisations at the moment. With many ‘baby boomer’ employees on the brink of retirement, and concerns about creating a sustainable talent pool with millenials who are considered less loyal than previous generations, having a robust plan has never been more important. While there are certainly challenges to face, to build an organisation where knowledge transfer and succession planning is commonplace, businesses can no longer rely on a reactive approach. It’s time to take the offensive and get proactive.

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