Succession planning is a critical element of future-proofing an organization and ensuring that it remains strong, relevant, and innovative for years to come. But succession planning won’t get your organization anywhere if the right people aren’t being prepared for the roles they could grow into. That’s where learning leadership comes in: leadership or succession development is the key to viable succession planning.

What is succession planning?

According to SHRM (the Society for Human Resource Management), “Succession planning is the process of identifying long-range organizational human capital needs and cultivating a supply of internal talent to meet those future needs.” The talent development piece is an integral part of succession planning.

Leadership teams, along with learning leaders, need to collaborate on identifying the future needs of the organization and anticipating the skills that will be needed to meet these needs and challenges. They then need a plan for identifying individuals who show potential and nurturing these—or all—employees as they upskill and prepare for future job roles and changes.

This can mean taking a Next-Gen Learning approach that entails “mixing and applying the tools from learning science and digital technologies.” It might also require adopting a growth mindset, which can spur broad talent development programs that help all employees develop their abilities and meet challenge goals. For learning leaders, it starts with intentionally focusing on building an effective team.

Shift from succession planning to succession development

Writing for HBR, Marshall Goldsmith notes that, “Plans do not develop anyone—only development experiences develop people.”

The planning process might lead to meetings, forms, and charts, Goldsmith wrote, which can give the illusion that something is getting accomplished. But the process is not the point! The objective is ensuring a consistent leadership pipeline and a prepared, future-proofed workforce that is constantly upskilling and reskilling to avoid skills gaps.

Making that happen requires, yes, planning; but it also requires a company culture that supports and encourages continuous learning and that promotes clear company values.

A company with those elements in place is well positioned to identify and prepare future leaders since it is already investing in the future with a skilled, committed workforce.

Why a continuous learning culture is necessary for succession development

Characteristics that tend to be prized in leaders, such as agility and flexibility, “come only when an enterprise has employees who are inquisitive, engaged, think dynamically and have the ability to make decisions quickly to impact the business,” according to Ashu Goel, writing for Forbes. And, Goel wrote, building such an organization requires a culture of continuous learning.

Continuous learning is a manifestation of a growth mindset—the belief that you, your team, and all the organization’s employees can learn new skills, improve their skills and performance, and grow and develop throughout their lives and careers. A company with a continuous learning culture backs that belief with support for ongoing development.

Individuals and teams might focus their development and learning efforts very differently: Some might have specific skills in mind that they want to learn or improve; others might try to anticipate future skills their job role will require and proactively upskill to avoid skills gaps. Some might try their hand at skills that would open up new career paths, potentially leading to upward or lateral moves into new roles.

The end result, though, is that employees engage in learning with specific goals in mind. They are able to find time to do training and development activities; learning and collaboration are part of their workday routine. When leadership prospects are identified, all that’s needed is tweaking the goals and content of their ongoing learning.

An additional benefit is that employees feel valued when they know their workplace is willing to invest in their development. Employees who feel valued and see a career path are likely to stay longer at the company, which is obviously essential if they are part of long-term and succession planning!

Share & reinforce the company’s core values

A strong company culture focused around learning, development, and shared values is an ideal foundation for succession development. But for that to happen, organizational leaders have to create, reinforce, and convey what the company’s core values are.

Marissa Levin, CEO of Successful Culture, calls core values, mission, and vision the elements that “define what a company believes, stands for and values more than profits, where the company is going, and why the company exists.” If a company’s leadership lacks clarity on these, the employees will as well—and they will also lack clarity on the company’s direction, she wrote.

Leaders must teach the organization’s values to all employees, lead by example, and consistently reward and reinforce behaviors that exemplify the core values. The values should be evident in all processes, from hiring to customer service to recognizing employees for “living the values.”

Identify and prepare future leaders—at all levels

Succession development is a long-term project. As Kathryn Tyler wrote in HR Magazine, “Succession planning is a bit like chess in that HR professionals must assess the board with an eye on the next move—and the next five moves thereafter. If one piece falls, the individual must develop a winning strategy using the pieces that remain.”

Today’s environment presents tremendous challenges: Baby Boomers are retiring at an accelerating pace—several million every month, according to Pew Research. Millions of people are still quitting or changing jobs each month, a trend that is continuing even as the job market slows down. So, mindful that any employee could resign at any time, companies need to plan for succession in all roles, not only top leadership positions.

Effective succession plans require knowledge of every role in an organization and its associate skills. Future-focused planning requires anticipating how each role could change and how those changes could alter the skills required of people in the role. This offers enormous opportunities—and challenges—for innovative L&D teams and learning leaders. Developing a long-range strategic training plan and supporting employees at every level to upskill, reskill, and chart a career path that benefits them individually while also serving long-term company goals is a significant undertaking.

Once the team understands a job role and its current and likely future skill sets, they need to match employees with the right training. This is likely a combined effort of the talent development, HR, L&D, and other functions. It may require knowledge transfer planning, peer coaching, capture of institutional knowledge in job aids and SOP (standard operating procedure) documents, and more.

Investing efforts in planning—and executing—for succession across the company poses exciting strategic challenges and opportunities for learning leaders. Done right, succession development future-proofs an organization and prepares it to show agility, innovation, and resilience in the face of ever-changing circumstances.

Explore leadership issues with your peers

Shifting learning culture, building a leadership pipeline, or adopting new training strategies can be an uphill climb. Explore these and other challenges and issues with other learning leaders in the Learning Leaders Alliance. Share what works, and hone your skills and examine strategies that will prepare you to navigate today’s dynamic work environment.

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