Most of today’s succession planning processes are much like the last coconut pie I made for my husband — they lack the key ingredient. Today’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) succession planning systems lack a critical component: scientifically validated assessments. Essentially, systems have added technology to the existing processes and included employee participation. While reaching each employee to participate in their development is a positive step, these approaches still fall short.

For the last several years, I have made coconut pies for my husband as a treat. The last pie looked like one of my best with the coconut perfectly toasted on the top. Then, I decided to take a small sliver (my husband had already eaten a couple of pieces). It was awful and inedible! I had forgotten to add the sweetener, yet my husband had been eating it and had not said a word. When I asked him, he responded by saying he thought it was the worst pie I had ever made. What does this have to do with succession planning? Nearly all succession planning processes leave out the most important ingredient or process — using scientifically validated assessments to accurately and comprehensively measure talent. With these tools deployed, each person can develop to reach their true potential. An effective talent pipeline is established, and best-match candidates can be aligned with critical positions.

Let’s keep in mind that adding technology is positive and helps to scale and organize efforts. However, if you lack a key objective data point in the succession planning process (like the sweetener for the pie), then the results are often poor or mediocre. There is much evidence that succession planning processes are missing the key ingredient, despite technology advances. The studies on executive succession are troubling:

    • 50% to 70% of executives fail within 18 months of taking on the role, regardless of whether they were an external hire or promoted from within, according to  research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB).
    • According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2021,Leadership bench strength hits an all-time low. In 2020, only 11% of human resources professionals said they have a strong enough bench to fill leadership roles.”
    • The costs are staggering according to HBR: “Many large companies fail to pay enough attention to their leadership pipelines and succession practices. That leads to excessive turnover at the top and destroys a significant amount of value—close to $1 trillion a year among the S&P 1500 alone.”

Generally, the succession process focuses on two key areas:

    1. Identifying critical job roles that need filling (C-suite, executives, etc.), as well as other jobs essential to the business, (sales, research and development, technology experts, production, customer services, marketing, logistics, maintenance, etc.). In performing this step, there is consideration for: Evaluating the importance of each role, establishing timelines for the urgency of replacement candidates, alignment and balance of key leadership strengths on the respective teams and identifying niche skills unique to the organization.
    1. Understanding the existing talent bench strength of individuals. This review is based on skills, experience, education and performance ratings. Next, determine how to develop existing talent to meet future succession needs to establish a strong pipeline.

The problems with succession planning arise in key area number two, where the ingredient to accurately identifying authentic leader talent falls short. Identifying current talent based on an inventory of skills, experience, education and training without a validated assessment tool does not provide a clear picture of the true talent, skills gaps and capability of a leader. There are simply too many blind spots and subjective data points used in the evaluation process. While these limited inputs are part of the overall process, there needs to be an upfront measure of each individual’s potential using validated assessments to measure:

    • In-depth personality characteristics, (Big Five) traits and vocational strengths.
    • Intrinsic motivators to align future roles with one’s passions, values and interests.
    • Inherent personality risk factors, or ineffective coping behaviors under stress and conflict, so that effective development plans can be formulated to help candidates minimize their risks.

When scientifically validated assessment tools for employee selection screening are used to identify talent, this assures that jobs are filled with the best fits and that people are developed congruently with their strengths and talent. The same objective data should be part of succession planning. There are additional considerations in the succession planning process, such as competitive forces; external talent availability; business strategy; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); finding hidden talent for upskilling; technology and retention.

Using a Strategic Approach

A strategic succession planning approach that utilizes deep-dive assessments, analytical capabilities, forward thinking and a transformational approach prepares all levels of leadership for a far improved, competitive future of positive returns and for enterprise-wide, inclusive leader and talent development. A strategic approach to succession planning involves an all-in, “let’s get this done” attitude with buy-in, ownership and transparency, top to bottom. This is to maximize measurable success and accelerate performance results and sustainability of leadership bench strength and growth.

This “top to bottom” approach is just that. This means that all executives, even the C-suite, leaders and employees should be assessed and developed according to their own true talent, gifts and needs. This also provides key insights to identify the traits of executive positions that need to be filled in the future. It is important to gain a clear reading on where the executive talent and bench strength exists today. By assessing and analyzing the current individual executive profiles and team profiles, organizations can ascertain what gaps, lopsidedness or obstacles may exist that need to be addressed to reach future performance and succession planning goals.

Talent diagnostics and key positions mapping happens next. During this process, it is important to identify misplaced or misaligned executives and talent and then to creatively design and recommend options to connect these leaders with more suitable roles and responsibilities. After key mapping and assessments are administered to respective employee groups, next is to begin filling pipelines and having respective leadership teams focus on developmental planning for the various levels of employees. This requires involvement of leadership teams cascading down throughout the organization to focus on the development of their employees.

Coaching and development are critical components to enterprise-wide strategic succession planning processes. This includes assessing and debriefing the C-suite members with their own assessment results for two reasons: One, for improved self-awareness; and two, to gain better first-hand knowledge on the analytics being used for the succession process. Since organizations will be using assessment data to augment the succession and development planning processes, each employee should be debriefed and coached with their own results. In this way, a win-win partnership is developed as both the employee and the company are participating in helping all employees grow and maximize their capabilities and career experiences that are congruent with their true talent.

This also assures that diversity and inclusion efforts actually succeed, which is critical. Too often, female and minority candidates are stymied early in their careers due to their inherent risk factors, according to research reported in the book, “Women Are Creating the Glass Ceiling and Have the Power to End It.” This means that their strengths often are ignored as they are judged too harshly as not having “the right stuff” due to their risks. Men are typically given a pass on their risks as they climb the ladder to success according to this same research.

If diverse candidates are provided coaching and development to enhance their innate strengths and to recognize and minimize their risks, this can be a game changer. Also, with objective assessments used in the succession planning process, more diverse candidates will be identified as having high potential. Without the assessments, these top candidates stay under the radar, while others, often less capable, are propelled forward. The ideal is to identify best-fit candidates to fill the various succession pipelines. There is an abundance of unrecognized talent in every organization. Getting it right matters because no one benefits from being overlooked or for being placed in a job where they do not fit well.

By adding AI coaching, not just succession systems, to the mix, organizations can scale to develop all talent in a way that democratizes, personalizes and digitizes coaching to reach all levels of employees. Without using technology, such as AI avatar coaching, to increase each persons’ self-awareness and accurate developmental action planning, coaching cannot be afforded to all. There are budget and logistical limitations hindering live coaching feedback for all levels of employees, so this is typically only feasible with digital coaching solutions.

There may be concerns with developing all employees since there are limited jobs at the top. The truth is, everyone needs feedback, coaching and development. To accomplish this, strategic succession may include a career enrichment element so that much of the development is focused on the needs of each employee, rather than focused on the rise to the top. This should also improve employee retention since younger employees, millennials (particularly), crave feedback and development; 94% would stay at their current employer if they invested in their long-term learning.

Until we deploy objective scientific measures upfront and scale coaching and development to all, no matter how glitzy the AI approach may be, succession planning systems will be missing the main ingredient of gaining a clear reading of the true talent and potential of each employee. Don’t forget the sweetener!