The recent news that HM King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer has been distressing, not least for his family, but also for the nation of which he is titular head.  I sincerely hope that the treatment he receives will rid him of the disease and that he gets well soon, but his situation raised an issue much closer to home.

Towards the end of 2023 I picked up a nasty bug while travelling that wiped me out for over a month.  As I’m unfamiliar with being ill, having enjoyed good health all my life, it was a strange and disagreeable experience not to be fully active or able to properly support the companies where I hold senior roles.

The monarchy has protocols in place for dealing with every eventuality. Following the announcement of the King’s illness, his private secretary will have contacted the Prime Minister’s private secretary and the head of the civil service and a whole system moved smoothly into place to cover any essential events in his schedule.  There is a clear succession plan in place, not just in the event of a monarch’s death, but on a temporary basis while the King is out of action.

In my case, being unable to attend business meetings very quickly demonstrated to me that I don’t have a protocol or succession plan, or even replacement processes in place. As an investor that’s not such a big deal, but as a busy executive director with a specific set of responsibilities and background of knowledge and skills, it creates a challenge if there isn’t someone else who can smoothly step into my shoes.

This experience made it very clear to me that I, like everyone else, am mortal and that looking further forward I have a ‘sell by’ date – we all have.

Succession at every level

Every organisation should have a comprehensive succession plan. In an ideal world every role in an organisation is covered by that succession plan, whether the position is considered senior or junior.  There’s no such thing as ‘only a …’. In a well-run business, each and every person adds value to the organisation.

We’re all busy in the operation of the business, whether that’s dealing with clients, product development, technology or raising funds. This means we can often overlook the issue of what would happen if any member of the team became unavailable; whether temporarily or permanently. It’s never too early to start developing our own replacements and those of the team around us.

If you look at your organisation, do you have a means of covering the role of the chief executive, other directors or key managers?  Not just as a ‘make-do’, but with a capable person who knows what is going on and can pick up the reins without missing a step.

This is important not just in the case of illness or the unexpected absence of a key team member, but is also critical when a team member leaves.  It’s not unheard of for a key player to leave and only after their departure, do the management discover that key information has gone with them, as it was all in their head. Intellectual capital is one of the key assets of any company. A good succession plan will avoid the loss of knowledge and expertise.

Create a strategy

How do you make sure that people are prepared to step up?

Start at the top, analyse your management team, what are their strengths and weaknesses?  What are the critical tasks, knowledge base and current responsibilities that must be covered? Map those processes and carefully analyse how the knowledge can be retained and key tasks performed in the case of a change of executive.

Select the competencies individuals will need if they are to be successful in new or more senior positions or required to meet identified business challenges. Consider high potential employees and how to keep them. Use the succession planning process to inspire and retain the next generation of talent by supporting their skills training and development thereby making the step into critical positions less onerous. Creating a pool of talent through a targeted career development strategy will also build strength in depth making the organisation far less susceptible to commercial or economic shocks.

It’s often useful to engage a third party to help with this process, as they are likely to be far more objective and challenge any tendencies to gloss over inconvenient facts.  We’re all emotional beings and see ourselves and our teams through an emotional lens, so a completely objective consultant is worth the investment.

A succession plan, once established, implemented and regularly monitored, will give your business resilience. It also means that if you are the one who is absent for whatever reason, you can focus on your return to your role clear in the knowledge that your area of responsibility is in good hands.

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