Here is the key to closing the gap between what executives want in their external successor versus what HR hires for.
Can you envision yourself at the end of your professional road? Finally reaching a milestone in life that is built by the many sacrifices leading to this moment? You think about who was there with you, about who gave you your shot and overcoming feats that you should not have been able to overcome. And what about all of the people you impacted and the people who changed you? For most us, our careers define us and touch our lives and those of others on so many levels. We hope to leave something behind for the future underdogs, and of course, a legacy. But what is a legacy without someone to carry it on? As an executive, your life’s work and achievements are partially made by what you’re willing to compromise in your personal life. So why would you compromise now, this late in the game, when selecting the next individual who will help shape and drive your future vision?
It happens too often. More times than I would like to accept, I have entered into succession planning discussions with the intent of identifying an external successor, and the profile for the successor seems to be agreed upon by the incumbent and HR. You would think, “Great – off to a good a start,” right? At face-value, yes. But as I dig dipper into these discussions—or worse, as preferences develop during the recruiting process—the truth becomes clear. The outer surface of the “profile” created is the illusion of an agreed upon set of traits and requirements, typically watered-down for the sake of having a tangible and consensual starting point. Beyond that, real interests become a fork in the road. What differs?
Hiring executives typically value a new way of thinking and outlook that serves as a supplement to their existing management team. A new competitive view of the industry and business landscape is often sought over direct experience and technical background. More times than not, this gut instinct based profile is compromised due to the skillset, work experience and culture fit requirements that are determined by HR.
What could an organization gain by hiring a successor with a different view, a non-conformist that may be the anti-culture? With a proper assimilation program and a clear initial starting point… a lot. After being involved in these discussions and truly seeing the need for change in a particular instance, I asked myself a question, frequently revisited. “What can we do better on the front-end as executives, HR partners and search professionals to get a little closer to the core of our ideal successor in effort to transition in a non-conformist that just may be the punch this company needs?” Thinking of the exercises that led to uncovering true profiles, it was realized that preventative measures will save time, better allocate resources and position us as being more decisive and prepared when engaging the external talent market. Do as much as possible on the front-end. Be open to everything and speak-up. This will feel like an intervention of sorts.
Hiring Manager, Incumbent
When thinking of their successor, an executive’s initial gut instinct tends to lean towards disruptive, innovative, hungry, calculated risk-takers who challenge the existing status quo. It is common that intangible attributes will outweigh interests in pure technical background and job experience. This is where personality traits, character and relatable thought processes come into play. It can be very difficult to identify this upfront because you cannot see or touch these things in planning meetings. There is an emotional element that comes out in picking your successor. I often wondered if executives felt they had less to lose at point where they were grooming their replacement. It is not the case. It is what they already know and applying it to a future leader that will help catapult the organization. Hiring Managers have ideas that go against the grain, but can be extremely valuable to the diverse DNA of the organization if it is coupled by an agreement of a proper transition plan.
The tendencies of HR partners traditionally leads to addressing what is best for the organization’s business objectives today and years ahead, with the existing company culture in mind. Serving as a point of checks and balances, HR keeps the profile grounded. But if these parameters are too rigid, it will limit a company’s ability to innovate. The important thing about HR partners is their visibility to the organization as a whole. This view can be leveraged proactively to suggest potential gaps and areas to supplement with non-traditional candidate attributes.
Making it Work
Front-end planning will make or break the success of injecting your cultural mismatch. Of course, the immediate and long-term business objectives need to be agreed upon, and skill sets and experience to do the job will shape the bones of the profile. The real start of designing the successor map begins with identifying your spark. Every company needs a spark somewhere. It is what sets off creativity and brings to life what does not seem possible in the existing culture. Q&A needs to provoke the disruptive ideas from the Hiring Manager and allow them to fly off the map of reality. With everything in the open, HR can then bring these ideas to paper, back to just within the lines of the comfort zone.
Apply this to building the profile & criteria requirements across 4 categories:
- Career Experience, Knowledge, Skillset
- Intangible Attributes, Personal Qualities, EQ
- Leadership, Judgment, Communication
- Education, Training, Achievements
If you review the final product and you are satisfied, it seems to be similar to other leadership profiles, start over. You have not broken the mold. Within reason, there should be some preferences that do not feel as familiar, especially in your EQ-driven bucket. Through open communication, it will all come together leading to the integration discussion. A joint effort by the hiring manager and HR team to gain buy-in will be critical.
With a profile and transition plan in place, it is go-to-market time and the end of compromising.
Prior to founding Webber Kerr, Adam began his career in financial services and co-found a mid-size human capital services company.
Adam received his a BS, Human Resources, from Michigan State University.