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 Notes on Talent Management 


  Programmes in which a person is marked out for development as a leader and is helped along the way have probably existed from the time humankind came into being.  Each tribe, city, nation and many other kinds of organisation needed an individual to fulfil a particular function and doubtless, for a variety of reasons such as religious conviction, altruistic wisdom and self-interest, a proportion of them would have set in motion a plan to find a suitable person and develop the particular qualities and connections needed in each case.

The Bible gives numerous examples of unplanned accession to leadership positions, such as by conquest or assassination as well as expected but unprepared accession of a hereditary or dynastic nature.  The preparation of Joshua by Moses some 3000 years ago has been cited as a prime example of succession planning (Old Testament, Joshua 1 1-18) but I think an example which better reflects the complexities of the process is Samuel's choosing of David to take over from Saul (Old Testament, 1 Samuel 16).

Describing the sequence of events set out in 1 Samuel 16 in present-day secular terms:-

Samuel no longer regarded Saul, who he had anointed King of Israel, as fit for the job.  Samuel learnt that a son of a Bethlehem man, Jesse, would be a suitable successor (v1).  With a bit of subterfuge to prevent Saul learning the true nature of his mission (v2), Samuel visited Jesse in Bethlehem and there from among the sons selected and anointed the youngest, David, a shepherd, to be the future King (vv10-13).

Next, members of Saul's staff suggested to their master that to soothe his spirit he needed someone to play music on a harp or lyre and offered to find such a person.  Saul agreed whereupon one of the staff recommended David as a lyre player and as a person possessing other desirable qualities.  Saul sent for David, took to him and appointed him his armour bearer while also availing himself of David's services as a harpist (vv15-21)

The manner in which David was introduced to Saul's 'court' may have been entirely coincidental but the nuances of the story indicate some behind the scenes priming of Saul's staff, with a view to David being "helped along the way".  Samuel himself is widely regarded as the writer of this part of the 1st Book of Samuel and it may have been intentional on his part to convey the covert aspect of what took place.

Fast forward to 20th Century

From Biblical times to the present day some changes in leadership of organisations large and small must have taken place by planned succession.  Both covert and overt processes were doubtless used but in either case very few records were left of them for posterity.  It was not until the 20th Century that such schemes burgeoned, many of them overtly under the auspices of recognised functions such as human resources management, management development, succession planning, training for leadership and talent management.  A wide range of private & public organisations with local to global coverage in many countries have adopted and publicised such schemes.  Numerous Consultants and University research teams offering advisory services on Succession Management have sprung into being.  Software has been developed to help the Succession Management process and one University is offering a Masters module on Succession Management System Implementation.

What is Succession Management?

The corporate or large company sector was probably the first to take professionally organised Succession Management on board.  It comprises two main phases - Planning and Implementation.

The UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), which is mainly concerned with the Corporate sector, defines Succession Planning broadly as "a process for identifying and developing potential future leaders or senior managers, as well as individuals to fill other business-critical positions, either in the short- or the long-term.  In addition to training and development activities, succession planning programmes typically include the provision of practical, tailored work experience that will be relevant for future senior or key roles".

This definition makes no distinction between the future-orientated component of Planning and the here and now activity of Implementation.  Both phases are vital and it is important to distinguish between them so that each can receive the attention needed for success.

Issues arising in the Planning phase include:-

Informal v formal approaches in identifying each potential successor, determining the training or development needed and mapping out the job progression and other activities to achieve the desired attributes.

The Implementation phase includes:-

Keeping appropriate members of top management (e.g. Succession Committee) informed of progress, arranging additions or modifications to cope with shortcomings or changed circumstances of the potential successor and overcoming problems arising from colleagues'.

Enthusiasm, Abandonment & Recovery

A number of present-day Succession Management practitioners report that the initial enthusiastic take-up of Succession Management in the 1950s and 1960s abated and then made a recovery.  One reason given for the fall-away in interest was that large companies running meticulously-organised, authoritarian and covert schemes aimed at advancing internal candidates did not produce the expected results.  Such schemes could not cope with the growth in uncertainty, the increase in speed of change in the business environment and the less hierarchical structures.

It is claimed that nowadays Succession Management is more flexible and is more responsive to the candidates preferences.  As one writer puts it, the modern version takes account of the growing recognition that people, men as well as women, increasingly need to make their own career decisions and to balance career and family responsibilities.

It is also reported that nowadays both succession candidates and managements have an overwhelming preference for transparency in the operation of the schemes.

Shortages internally of much-needed skills and in leadership potential has led to businesses looking outside the organisation.  There is greater recognition that organisations need to bring in people with new ideas and outlooks from outside.

National Variations

Succession issues in the Business sector vary from Country to Country.

In Russia the succession problems of the few entrepreneurs and industrialists who became super wealthy in the early years of post-communist Russia is fraught with risk of takeover by the state or corporate rivals.

In China the limitation of one child per couple means that particularly tough decisions will have to be made when entrepreneurs consider retirement and succession.  Outsiders are needed as companies have outgrown their original management and have become increasingly global.

India has a myriad of small family businesses which are reluctant to bring in the outsiders needed as they have grown.

South Africa also has a special problem.  In March 2010, with over 500 senior executives of its Stock Exchange quoted corporations soon to retire, President Zuma called for transformation and succession planning to be expedited so that proportions of black (African, Coloured, Indian) & white senior managers as well as male/female ratios more closely reflect the demographic make-up.

Widespread Application

The need to find, foster and place talent has led to the recognition of the value of professionally organised Succession Management in one form or another in sectors other than business - for example the UK Civil Service and the U.S. military.  Public and private organisations benefiting from such an approach range from national (as in the Biblical Example) to local levels.

Transparent versus Covert

Succession candidates and managements may favour transparency but there is still much argument about whether the covert approach is the better way.

In favour of transparency:-

With the transparent approach candidates are told where they stand in their progress towards succession.  It is better that they know that they are being considered as potential high flyers - some would not otherwise realise they are well-regarded and may look elsewhere to enhance their careers.

In a fully transparent scheme candidates get to know the succession process - the people involved, the methods and criteria used to assess potential successors, the kinds of jobs that are considered suitable for each individual and the development deemed to be needed in each case.  The career and life-style preferences of each would be respected as far as possible - apparently in the past this was not the case.

There are however some problems with openness:-

If a succession candidate knows how he or she is being assessed there could be a great deal of 'playing to the gallery' which would not be indicative of his performance in the job he eventually ends up with.  All measurement disturbs particularly when what and how it is being carried out is known to the person being measured.

Telling a potential successor that he or she is not ready for promotion could result in low morale which is likely to affect performance in the job the candidate is doing and possibly to seek a job elsewhere.  There could be a similar result if the organisation cannot deliver on the prospect it has put to the candidate - changes within or external to the organisation, delays in implementing planned changes etc. could lead to a crippling disappointment of the potential successor.  It is possible also that the trainee successor could take legal action if the organisation does not deliver on its promises.  Making it clear that nothing is promised can also have a de-motivating effect and restlessness which would offset the encouragement which comes from the knowledge that the organisation is interested in progressing his career and providing opportunities for career development.

Being open about succession plans also gives colleagues ammunition to oppose what the organisation has in mind for a particular candidate.  It may prompt some deemed to be unsuitable to compete for the job.

An alternative to saying upfront that nothing is promised is to hint at progression.  In this way nothing will be in writing and it is exceedingly difficult for a candidate to explain hints to others.  Similarly if the organisation's succession plans are covert those who are excluded from knowledge of it have no basis for opposing them.

Finally, it should be mentioned that both 'overt but no promise' and 'covert hinting at succession' approaches  can be used by organisations with no genuine Succession Scheme to simply encourage retention of valuable staff.  


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