Inevitably, the topic of succession planning arises during strategic planning sessions with my clients. Often, the discussion is focused on executive management and the board. I submit to you, however, that you should address succession planning across all levels of management, in all departments.
In a typical organization, there exist what I call “concentrations of knowledge.” Generally, only a handful of individuals hold a complete understanding of processes, practices, and procedures. Overcoming the absence of these individuals is generally a collaborative effort of those who have partial knowledge, along with the occasional “emergency” phone call, text, or Facebook message to that person who is on vacation, home sick, or out of the office for a meeting. The better way to address these concentrations of knowledge is an intentional program of cross-training, succession planning, and overall training and education designed to increase knowledge and understanding of all employees.
This is my annual reminder to you that vacation season is a great time to assess the extent to which you are impacted by these concentrations of knowledge. Evaluate the efforts of your staff when managers or other key employees are on vacation. Do errors increase? Are there compatibility issues that come to the fore? Is the staff reaching out to absent employees for help during the day or in the evening?. One key to a high performing organization is a level of cross training that anticipates and overcomes the temporary and permanent loss of a key employee.
Here are three things you can do to reduce the potential impact of concentrations of knowledge, and prepare for both short and long term absences. First, insist that departmental policies and procedures are well documented, properly audited (practices versus written procedures) and that employees are trained well. Second, insist that employees within a given department are cross trained on other tasks and duties, and that actual rotation of duties occurs throughout the year. Finally, strictly enforce vacation absences, including communications via any method. This not only pays dividends from improving your bench strength, it ensures that the internal control benefit of required absences is fully realized.
I’m eager to hear what you learn from your efforts and observations. As always, I stand ready to assist you in these or other areas.
Trent Fleming advises executives on strategy, management, and technology issues. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @techadvisor