What's the big idea? Succession planning

Nigel Nicholson examines the pitfalls of succession planning.

by Nigel Nicholson
Last Updated: 21 Aug 2015

Steve Jobs, facing the grim reaper, did it meticulously, for the sake of the Apple of his eye. It is part of the fabric of political, dynastic and corporate systems the world over, yet lots of firms - many of them in the family business sector - come unstuck at points of leadership transition. A pipeline of humans to the key nodes of the organisational machine should ensure that not a beat is lost when managers die, go mad, get fired or just fade away - the system will feed as it moves. That's the theory. But firms are not machines and human impulse has a way of derailing the practice. Plans turn out to be too rigid for a rapidly changing world. The secret chart in the HR managers' office, showing all the destined understudies, is subverted by people with power. A new boss comes in and rewrites the rules. The problem is that succession planning is often both too short term and too long term. The only way to make it work is to shift perspective, to one about people's career journeys within a context. If we did, then we could think about an N+2 model - the next job is just a stepping stone to the one after that. Such leapfrog thinking can get people up the ladder fast - if we want - and we can stop torturing others with short-term hope and long-term delusion.

- Nigel Nicholson is professor of organisational behaviour at the London Business School.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Want to encourage more female leaders? Openly highlight their achievements

A study shows that publicly praising women not only increases their willingness to lead, their...

Message to Davos: Don't blame lack of trust on 'society'

The reason people don't trust you is probably much closer to home, says public relations...

Dame Cilla Snowball: Life after being CEO

One year on from stepping back as boss of Britain's largest advertising agency, Dame Cilla...

How to change people's minds when they refuse to listen

Research into climate change deniers shows how behavioural science can break down intransigence.

"Paying women equally would cripple our economy"

The brutal fact: underpaid women sustain British business, says HR chief Helen Jamieson.

Why you're terrible at recruitment (and can AI help?)

The short version is you're full of biases and your hiring processes are badly designed....