Mount Rushmore, the ultimate honour for the US's greatest leaders

Mount Rushmore, the ultimate honour for the US’s greatest leaders

Succession planning sounds all very well and good but, let’s face it, in most organisations other immediate issues take priority. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, under a third of European companies are confident they have a quality talent pipeline.

But companies that don’t think this far ahead leave themselves vulnerable to having a board that does not have the skills and experience needed. How many people would have been able to step into Steve Jobs’ shoes as successfully as Tim Cook? Finding the right leaders should not happen by accident.

It goes without saying that the influence of those at the top makes or breaks a business, setting the tone and direction for everyone and everything. Working hard, thinking strategically and learning fast are essential, but are far from the only characteristics to look out for. So how can you spot your leaders of tomorrow?

Set the direction

A lack of a succession plan is often a sign that other essential planning hasn’t taken place. What is the long-term aim of the business? Will it be sold, grown internationally, or new products developed?

Without this decided, finding and nurturing the right talent to the top is a futile exercise because it’s impossible to know who will be the right people to lead in your future. Each company needs to set the direction.

Start at the top

HR has a vital role to play in ensuring there is a process in place to identify and enable talent, providing managers with the tools and knowledge they need to take an active role in unlocking their team’s potential.

However, in order for the succession plan to gain real momentum, the CEO and the board need to be aligned behind the future vision and be champions of the plan that will help achieve it. HR directors need to use their influence and strategic thinking to ensure that this happens.

Look to the future

What is needed in your CEO now is not necessarily what will be needed in your CEO in five or ten years. Consider what your employees, industry and your customers or clients will look like. Then map out the leadership skills and characteristics that are needed to attain your vision in the future.

For instance, will your leaders need to make difficult decisions in the interests of the business? Engage people on a rational and emotional level? Have the confidence to convince the skeptical shareholders? Almost all of these will be needed in every business.

Start at the beginning

There are telltale signs of these characteristics from very early on in people’s careers. Your succession plan process can start as early as during the recruitment process, ensuring that high potential individuals are set on the right path immediately.

Make the most of the interview, taking time to understand an applicant based on the information you have garnered beforehand.

Use all the tools at your disposal – whether that is psychometrics, competency-based testing, technical tests or your own bespoke process.

Develop questions that get a full view of what motivates the candidate, their appetite for responsibility and where their talents lie. Do they have the ability to learn the skills that your future leaders will need? Do they have positive motives – wanting the company and its people to succeed as opposed to craving personal gain? If possible, create an action plan for this early on.

Look back

Leaders are the face of a brand. Think about the impact that Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg have on the one hand, compared to Paul Flowers on the other. When their reputation is questioned, the company is put at risk.

Two-thirds of people include errors on their original job applications so looking into an individuals’ past at hiring stage – their business achievements, education history, criminal record and so on – can help make sure that there are no skeletons in the closet waiting to be revealed when they are promoted.

Regular checks throughout an employee’s career – especially as they progress into senior positions – will help managers see any issues early and make sure that assistance is available. As people progress, media and social media checks help minimise the risk of damaging reputational issues raising their heads.

Do what’s right for you

Investigate what other companies in your industry do, and look to companies who have leading succession plans in place. Consider what can be learnt that can be applied to your company, and be creative in how you develop a process, which works for you today and that will help you succeed tomorrow.

Steve Girdler is Managing Director for EMEA and APAC at HireRight, the candidate due diligence company.