The Caped Crusader is Dead…

Now What Do We Do?
by Ellen Markey
American Society for Training and Development, Heart of Illinois Chapter

The importance of succession planning in an organization

What would happen in the Batman movies if the famous crime-fighting superhero was no longer available to protect Gotham City from its criminal underworld? Think about it—Batman is the crucial figure keeping the city safe for all of its citizens. Does Robin or Batgirl have what it takes to step into the role? How about Alfred? Or could we just hire someone from the outside and have them learn the ropes?

Maybe we should start by identifying the core competencies, knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to fill Batman’s role. To begin with, the successor would need a deep-seated sense of integrity and ethics. He or she would need to be internally motivated (because despite all the cool toys, the position itself is not a paying gig). The intrinsic rewards would specifically tie in to the candidate’s strong sense of justice.

As far as knowledge goes, the successor would have to know the streets of Gotham City; the MO (modus operandi) of the Joker, Penguin and other criminals; how to access the Batcave, etc. Skills needed would include operating the Batmobile, Batplane and Batphone—just to name a few. Not to mention, he or she would have to be able to look good in the Batsuit! But as the different Batman movies have shown us, the suit itself can be tailored to fit the user. The same is true in corporate America. Each candidate will bring something different to the role, just as each actor brought his own vision of the character to the movie.

So let’s say that we put an ad in the Sunday paper. When you wait until there is a vacancy and then reactively try to fill that role, that’s called replacement planning. This might be the best solution in some cases, but what are the risks of bringing someone in from the outside?

In our scenario, the criminals would undoubtedly have the upper hand, while the new hire learns the knowledge, skills, politics, key players and the critical information needed to do the job. And who would be able to train the new crime fighter in this case?

A “think-ahead” strategy called succession planning would be a better choice. If Gotham had a strong succession plan in place, most of these risks could be avoided. The Society for Human Resource Management defines succession planning as “the process of identifying long-range needs and cultivating a supply of internal talent to meet those future needs.” It is an ongoing, proactive process of making sure you have the right people in place to fill critical positions, and is a priority for any successful organization.

Succession planning involves:

  • Understanding the organization's long-term goals and objectives
  • Determining critical positions, which, if left vacant, could have a negative effect on the business
  • Being aware of workforce trends and predictions
  • Will the organization face significant growth in one particular segment of the business? 
  • What impact will technology, globalization or changing workforce demographics have?
  • Identifying high-potential candidates and their respective developmental needs.

Once the organization’s strategic goals are understood, the next step is to identify high-potential employees. Where are their strengths and areas for development? What specific talents do they bring to the mix? For which jobs could they be solid contenders in the future? What development would they need to fill those roles? Research from the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that only 10 percent of developmental activities come from formal training initiatives, 20 percent comes from networking (including participation in professional organizations like the American Society of Training and Development HOI Chapter), and as much as 70 percent comes from on-the-job experiences.

When considering a succession planning program, the goal is not to “groom” one individual for a specific role. Batman chose Robin and “groomed” him—not the best approach. (According to Wikipedia, in the DC Comic version: “In 2009, following Wayne's apparent death, the role of Batman has been taken up by his former ward and the first Robin, Dick Grayson.”) The best approach is to have a pool of candidates to enrich the selection process. As a kind of lone wolf, Batman is not the best at this—he doesn’t “play well with others.” Avoid the “like-me” approach. Robin was chosen because his parents, like Batman’s, were murdered. Celebrate diversity. What creative thinking or fighting style would be useful to his successor? What new kinds of technically savvy criminals will need to be counteracted?

An effective succession planning process will reap many benefits:

  • Avoid extended and costly vacancies in key positions
  • Ensure the continuity of management
  • Assure the stability of business operations
  • Assist in the development of a diverse workforce
  • Keep a strategic focus for the organization as a whole
  • Produce “home-grown" future executives
  • Shorten the learning curve as people assume key positions
  • Increase commitment and loyalty of high potentials
  • Create a “learning organization”
  • Identify competencies required to understand business as a whole
  • Develop new roles to manage new business and revitalize business units
  • Survive in today's global environment.

Succession planning is part of the overall human resource development and talent management strategies for any successful organization. To make it work in your organization, a succession plan should be:

  • Easy to use
  • Developmentally oriented
  • Built around continual reinvention
  • Aligned with the organization’s strategic plans
  • Supported by top leadership
  • Willingly and actively embraced by participants.

Batman created himself through incredibly strong personal motivation, but Gotham City can’t assume that another “self-made” protector will just come along. Through succession planning, Gotham can help create a vibrant group of crime fighters and make the city safer. Developing and rigorously implementing a methodical succession planning process in your organization can help ensure your company’s long-term profitability and growth. iBi

A native of Peoria, Ellen Markey is vice president of professional development at HOI-ASTD and manages a team of eight trainers at a customer care center in Davenport, Iowa. She has an extensive background in human resources and all aspects of learning and development.

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