LOST was a good example of bad succession planning

In the end, I suppose things turned out okay for the mysterious island and, apparently, humanity.  But, there were some dicey moments.  Had Jacob done a better job at succession planning the island would likely have never been in danger, but I’m sure the TV series would not have been nearly as interesting.

LOST exhibits many of the characteristics of bad succession planning.  Candidates for the job didn’t know they were up for the job nor did they know the job existed.  The job description was sketchy and the traits on which the candidates were evaluated on were too narrow.   In the end, the job transition wasn’t smooth and the there was a time when there was way too much at stake.

Unfortunately, something resembling this bad succession planning or worse occurs at many organizations.

That’s too bad, because a good succession planning culture has many benefits.  It can provide a firm with competitive advantage, it can result in a happier workforce and it can substantially the reduce risks of losing key personnel.  It can also keep the waters smooth for key stakeholders such as owners, customers and employees.

So, what does a good succession planning culture look like?

  1. Each position from the top, down to a step above the entry level workers has a list of potential next candidates.   The names may be of people in the firm or outside.
  2. The list should contain people that may be ready to take the position as well as those that might be ready in two to five years.
  3. Most of the candidates should know they’re on the list and where they stand.  If you feel you need to keep people in the dark to that’s a sure sign of a corrupt or political culture.  Also, its good to know if the candidates are interested in the position.  There’s little reason to have their name taking up space on the list and dedicating resources to prepare them if they’re not interested.
  4. The organization should be actively preparing the candidates to assume the role if it becomes available.  It amazes me when I see an organization wait until the job becomes available to start looking for a replacement.  That tells me that the job was of little consequence or the manager in charge of that role was incompetent.  Having someone ready to step in will allow the organization to not have to waste resources while someone learns the ropes.

Actively preparing the candidates means more than sending them to training classes.

It means periodically giving candidates constructive feedback on areas that need improvement.  It means looping the candidate into the job so they know what to expect.  This can be done in a number of ways like giving them a chance to assume the role on an interim basis as backup while the main person is not available or divvying out pieces of the job to candidates on an ongoing or rotating basis.  This also includes giving candid, constructive feedback so the candidate can know what they’re doing well and what they need to work on.

In my career, all too often I’ve seen key positions become vacant before the managers ever think about a suitable replacement.  I’ve seen boards of directors stuck with leadership teams and managers stuck with employees that they’re not happy with because they failed to do their job in preparing a good succession plan.

Succession planning should be a key function that boards and managers are expected to perform.  A good succession planning culture is a sign of a well managed organization.


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