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Playing Succession Too Close

(CC) 2.0 by shoobydooby via Flickr

Sarah, a highly-qualified star employee, is nearing the end of a temporary assignment to another group within a large organization. She’s done a great job, and has even demonstrated capabilities that few knew she had. She’s been such an asset, in fact, that at least one executive has contemplated bringing her into the team permanently to take charge of an entirely new consulting capacity that Sarah will have a hand in building. Sarah, on the other hand, is examining her options after the end of the temporary assignment ends so that she can move into a consulting and coaching role in another organization because such opportunities don’t exist where she is. Sure, it looks like an obvious pairing, but when this executive approached her, he only asked vaguely about her intentions, and she responded with what she had been considering and why. The executive, not wanting to let her know that such a capacity might soon be right at her finger tips — not wanting to give her the power of knowing that they already want her for the job — left without making any clear statement of his and the organization’s intentions.

Given Sarah isn’t aware of any earnest desire for her to stay and that the exact sort of thing she is looking for might be at hand, she will probably leave. If it happens, the consulting capacity will likely be staffed by someone how is handy at the time, who is far less qualified, and who has no such potential to benefit the organization long term.

In the end, everyone loses and works harder to do it.

What’s Going On Here?

One of the overriding themes of the last few years has been how to build one’s bench — how to identify and select high-potential employees (HiPos) and would-be employees to proactively enhance the team. Within this idea includes both building skills and knowledge capabilities, as well as grooming HiPos for eventual advancement into leadership as part of a long term succession pipeline. While this article relates to all of these factors, it’s main focus is on the succession component and the problems that occur when we forget to tell our HiPos that they are HiPos, and what that means.

There are two main factors that we consider when identifying HiPos for potential out-year advancement. First, we need to evaluate people in our organization to find out if they have the traits we want our future leaders to have. In essence, this is getting to the personality of a person to see if they have the natural tendencies to behave correctly and lead correctly — whatever that means in your organization — such that we are only adding skills, not correcting dispositions. There are as many ways to do this as there are organizations, but it will usually be a combination of demonstrated leadership ability (e.g. military experience, team captain, event organizer, etc.) and our sense of their human relations and empathy (i.e. EQ, or similar).

Once we determine the person has the traits we desire, then we need to move to the second consideration: how to leverage and direct those traits so that our HiPo will continue to be engaged in the organization for what may be a multiyear development process. For many organizations, this is the sticky part. Leaving aside possible accusations of unfairness — I’ll assume that you’ve had the lawyers and HR involved in the screening process such that it will withstand scrutiny — a lot depends on whether the HiPo is interested in the proposition and is willing to commit to the process to the degree required to realize the benefit. Herein lies the core of the problem.

The Tragedy of the Information War

By some strange logic, it appears that many organizations want the HiPo to commit to the plan before we tell him/her what the plan is and how they are involved in it. We may ask them what their intentions or career plans are, or pursue some other circuitous path of inquiry before we let them in on what is going on. We may assume that our own evasiveness can reasonably cause them to be on their guard — remember the EQ thing and that we’re talking to them at least partially because they are good at reading other people. Now we’re in the dance of death in which everyone is being pushed farther apart because nobody wants to tell the other about the actual goal.

If this is starting to sound like the crazy zero-sum way we approach salary negotiation, then you’re in the right place.

Why do we behave this way, when we know that transparency is the thing we need to practice? My sense is that we are afraid to lose, and the more information we give, the more power to win we give someone else. However, this is the same mistake we make when we try to squeeze every drop out of a salary negotiation, treating a hire as a momentary acquisition to fill a momentary need rather than a strategic partnership. Well, when identifying a HiPo, we make implicit the fact that this person is not fungible within the workforce, and we make explicit that we want to partner with this person for the long term betterment of our organization.

How Do We All Win?

It may seem too obvious, but the only way for everyone to win is for everyone to come clean with what they know and what they intend. This constant evasion as each attempts to get an upper hand in the information war prevents us from working with our HiPos to find mutually beneficial partnerships aimed at the long term. Sure, there may be safeguards we need to put in place — think remain on board agreements with the same weight as the powerful non-compete agreements common in the tech world — but those are also tools to make sure everyone is on the same page with the commitments more than they are simply to limit harmful behaviors.

Consider the long term impact of doing the right thing by your HiPos. Who knows? If you treat your brightest up-and-comers like they are your brightest up-and-comers, in a way that is both fair and recognizes their potential to go a long ways with the company, then you may become the place HiPos congregate because they know they won’t get lost in the shuffle of obfuscation of intent with no thoughts to what they want for their careers.

About the Author:

Dr. Philip D. Mann is an experienced trainer, speaker, and problem solver who gets things done. His primary expertise is employee engagement and the people side of how organizations grow and (resist) change. He also knows a thing or two about the government works, and those principles apply to all large, bureaucratic structures. If you need help getting things done, reach out to Dr. Mann here on LinkedIn or at www.we-hc.com.

Published inEmotional Quotient (EQ)Employee EngagementGovernmentLeaders and ManagersLinkedInMillennialsRecruitmentRelationships

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