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In Case of Emergency: A Case Study in COVID-19 Succession Planning

The COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed unprecedented business challenges to, in many cases, drive a stark shift in priorities. With the risk that anyone could fall ill, organizations are racing to establish emergency succession plans in the wake of the virus. The issue? All critical P&L positions need backups, but not all successors are “ready now.” In today’s unpredictable world, those leaders you hoped could have 1-3 more years of development before making the next big leap might need to take the helm (much) sooner than expected.

An assessment client recently approached us with this challenge: “Based on the talent we have, who could fill the shoes of our top executives at a moment’s notice?”

With the exception of the CEO position, most organizations do not engage in emergency succession planning prior to the event that requires it. The idea of an “emergency” successor inherently raises concerns, implying the identified candidate is lacking in some way as a viable long-term option, but is the best you can do in a pinch. COVID-19 is providing a unique opportunity for organizations to think about their continuity plans across their entire slate of pivotal P&L roles, not just the CEO.

For the client in question, we engaged the COO and his HRBP in a talent review to discuss potential successors and help them respond to this big talent issue. The Board requested an emergency succession plan, and although the COO had been carefully planning the leadership transitions of his executive team over the last several years, he was not ready to establish his next executive team now. But current business conditions were requiring him to plan for the worst.

In this case, we had the benefit of having assessed over the years all of the leaders under consideration by the COO. Therefore, when he identified a list of people to discuss, we quickly engaged the Vantage assessors and coaches who worked with them for a strategic talent review. Each assessment we do at Vantage includes our evaluation of the candidate’s “advancement potential,” which is often used by clients to gauge their talent pipelines, identify key roles without viable successors, and validate their succession plans. For the COO, this clear and objective benchmark allowed him to quickly scan his leadership team and identify future chief officers. Then our consultants gathered over videoconference to help him unpack the implications of the leadership strengths and development opportunities identified for each person, and create a plan for any gaps that might limit their future success.

For one particular GM role, the COO had two potential emergency successors. One leader was a long-tenured employee who had climbed the ranks since college and was an absolute exemplar of a high potential leader, but without the technical and manufacturing expertise so core to the business. Additionally, he had no formal P&L experience to date. “Could he build credibility with the masses? Can he live and die by the P&L?” the COO wondered. The other leader was a new employee who was recently brought in to transform manufacturing operations. She was a GM in her last role, had already made a strong impact on plant operations and morale across their biggest business unit in her short tenure, and showed the drive and intelligence to continue to scale her responsibilities. However, she did not have a strong relationship with the COO and when they did interact, the leader exhibited some behaviors the COO perceived as “countercultural.”

Who do you choose? The high potential leader who doesn’t quite have the skill mix but has all the building blocks, or the leader with a proven track record but some rough edges that may leave a lasting cultural impact? This is an emergency succession plan, after all. In an emergency situation, is it a time to take a chance on the HiPo?

To answer this question, we took a step back and considered the leadership expectations of the organization. They have a well-known and evangelized leadership competency model, which our assessment team learned when we began our partnership years ago. Now, we rate each assessment candidate on every competency, as well as create customized developmental objectives for each person based on expectations defined in the model. We turned to the competency ratings for both successor candidates and compared them across the framework. From a behavioral perspective, it was clear who was exhibiting leadership in congruence with how the organization defined success in their model. In digging into these ratings further, we also gave some credibility to the COO’s observations that the newer leader was somewhat “countercultural”- she was not building the right relationships and working across the matrix to get things done, and this was reflected in her scores on measures of relationship-building and connecting. The COO decided to place a bet on the HiPo, and set some time aside to give the newer leader feedback on where to adjust.

Our client had the benefit of a robust database of assessment results and insights from working with us over the years, so when they came to us with this talent question, we were ready to jump in the trenches with them and advise – because we knew their people. However, even if you do not currently have a strong system in place for leadership assessment, you can still establish a quick and dirty emergency succession plan as the pandemic continues to unfold. How? In brief: identify key roles, know what success looks like, and evaluate your available talent.

A caveat: when evaluating available talent, organizations must make a clear distinction between candidates who are not quite ready and those who are fundamentally lacking something that will prevent them from ever getting there. If you have leaders who are 1-2 years from being ready, but you are confident in their capabilities and developmental trajectory, you can accelerate them to be able to succeed now. But succession pools are also often spotted with candidates who have a derailing quality that keeps them from really being a viable candidate. Take a chance on the “almost ready” leader, but not the “if only they weren’t such a jerk” leader. Be realistic about who can develop what by when. .

When in doubt, seek help from experts. Succession planning is challenging enough when not done on the fly, in the midst of a global pandemic. We love when our clients bring forth their talent problems and questions and allow us to ideate with them. In our example, the COO was able to go to his Board with more than hunches and reputations – he could showcase an objective and analytical process for making appointments should executives fall ill.

In general, succession planning should not be an extraordinary event, but rather a well-established process: a part of “business as usual.” Beginning succession planning activities can unearth all sorts of anxieties and misconceptions about the purpose (i.e., “Is this an indication that you’ll be letting me go?”), but the next time there’s an emergency that threatens your business continuity, you’ll be glad you were doing it all along.

How is your organization approaching emergency succession planning and business continuity? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

About Eileen Linnabery

Eileen’s passion for utilizing psychological principles to enhance the human capital competitive advantage of organizations brought her to Vantage in 2014. She began her career building and operating assessment centers for development and selection, and has worked to assess and develop leaders in a variety of industries such as pharmaceuticals, energy, oil and gas, entertainment, and banking. She enjoys focusing on helping leaders transition from being stellar individual contributors to leading others. Her goal is to assist individuals in developing a better understanding of themselves as leaders, and to help them reframe how they approach their work.

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Whether you’re looking for an executive coach, an assessor for your talent search, a facilitator for your team, or someone to help design and implement a robust succession plan, we would love to discuss how we can partner with you.

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