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How coronavirus has spotlighted the need for succession planning

All critical positions must have backups.
By: | April 14, 2020 • 4 min read
succession planning

When coronavirus invaded this country, many organizations activated their emergency or business-continuity plans. Everyone knew what needed to be done, and senior leadership stepped up to the plate. But what happens if the virus attacks someone at your organization in a position below the senior ranks, perhaps the payroll or benefits and compensation manager, or someone in IT who analyzes HR data? Do you have a succession plan for people in these key roles?

Some organizations don’t have a backup plan for people in critical positions below the C-suite. This type of plan has not been a priority among many HR professionals or senior leaders—especially as they try to manage and engage a mostly remote workforce and figure out how to run a company without having control over future events—but it needs to be in order to prevent further disruptions in your organization, experts say.

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Start the process by identifying critical roles and employees who keep your business solvent, says Colleen O’Neill, senior client partner at Korn Ferry, a global management consulting firm that recently published Executive Succession Through the Lens of COVID-19.

“Convene the right people together,” she says, pointing to heads of departments, business units or functions as examples. “[Ask], who’s critical? If you had to name an understudy, who would that person be? What needs to happen for that [individual] to be ready? [Some] are like a Swiss Army knife: They can sit in different roles. Consider retirees who may be willing to step in temporarily.”

Then stress test your plan, she says. Run through realistic business scenarios before making talent decisions. Can these backups step into these roles during a crisis?

O’Neill says it’s important to be “radically realistic about talent capability.” She explains that emergency succession planning requires HR and senior leaders look through a different lens. Do these employees have the learning agility, resilience or perhaps experience to step into that role tomorrow? Although this presents a development opportunity for some employees, realize that it also poses a talent risk for HR, she says, and that people who are temporarily moved to another job may not succeed in that same position long-term.

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“Wartime leaders may not be great during the recovery effort,” says O’Neill, adding that they may possess short-term, not long-term, strategic skills. “High potentials, who are blackbelts at what they do, may not have the capability to operate at this level.”

At Least Two Understudies

While many companies are in reactionary mode, HR must focus on areas essential to running the business. But don’t do this in a vacuum. Meet with appropriate company leaders to develop a skills inventory of your workforce and then share it with a core team of several leaders who can help you narrow the list down to what’s absolutely critical, says Andrea Walsh, lead, talent line of business for the Chicago metro area and also a senior director of talent rewards at Willis Towers Watson, a global risk management, insurance brokerage and advisory company.

Make sure to identify the top three to five skills of strong performers, she says. For instance, consider an employee who has the skills to manage payroll. Instead of naming the individual as a successor  to the payroll director, she says, that same employee may have critical skills needed elsewhere in the business.

HR must also monitor the performance of successors, she says, and be willing to make adjustments when needed. But perhaps the hardest part of all is trusting trust them to do the job.

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“You’ve got to create an environment of psychological safety where people know they can come to you at any time with questions,” Walsh says, adding that two, even three, understudies should be named for each critical position. “You’ve got to trust them to figure it out. You’ve also got to be OK with mistakes. Help the individual and organization move on.”

By observing this process, she says, HR professionals can help employees expand their skill set and, ultimately, build a better workforce for the future.

“You’re creating opportunities for people to learn new things,” says Walsh. “What better way to do this than in the middle of a crisis? While people may make mistakes, they’ll come out on the other side with more confidence and ability to support the organization moving forward.”

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She believes this pandemic has accelerated the need for HR professionals to take a strategic look at work and consider how jobs need to change, which will better equip the company to handle future global or national disasters. By developing a succession plan that digs deep into employee ranks, she says, HR will be able to mix and match tasks from multiple jobs and, due to evolving technology, identify outdated activities or those that no longer add value to the business.

“Organizations need to use this time to get smart because, next time, there will be fewer excuses to not be prepared,” Walsh says. “This [pandemic] was like a fire hose coming at us. Do these steps ahead of time so next time you’re not in this position and will have someone in place more quickly.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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