The top 5 reasons succession planning goes wrong and how to fix them

Succession planning org chart with person icons

Succession planning may be – no – it IS the most important job of executive leadership. The critical aim of this work is to ensure leadership continuity by identifying individuals with the highest potential to fill key positions in an organization. This is work that affects more than just the future of individuals’ careers, it affects the fate of the entire organization. I have literally seen a company’s stock price swing more than 10% in a day when news about executive position replacements gets out. Even in moderately large organizations billions of dollars can be at stake when it comes to answering the question, who will lead? As such, succession planning represents possibly the highest stakes of all executive assessment. Unfortunately, most organizations are really bad at succession planning. And more often than not, those stock prices swing lower rather than higher based on news of new leadership. Maybe the investors are right.

Succession planning is typically construed as good defense. In order to ensure leadership continuity, a list of individuals most ready to backfill a given job is prepared so that in the event of an open position (typically unanticipated) a succession of leadership changes can be made. Backfills are made not just for the open position but for the “domino effect” that cascades through the organization based on even one or two key moves. While this may be a good replacement plan for key executives, it’s bad for true, strategic organizational succession planning. It’s like looking in the rearview mirror in order to go forward – you might just run over someone and you won’t get where you want to go.

Let’s examine some of the most challenging realities that plague most succession planning efforts.

Succession Planning - Done Wrong

  1. It’s based on backwards thinking.

The typical exercise involves identifying the next in line, i.e., "backfill," for a job that opens up, usually due to an executive departure from the organization. While this may be a good way to stay where you are as an organization, your competition is going forward at full speed. The error here is replicating what you’ve had versus positioning what you’ll need.

  1. It’s driven by those who need a successor.

This problem applies more broadly than succession planning. From a personal point of view, the assumption here is that if I win the lottery, then my groomed successor will replace me. Wrong. If you leave the organization, you most definitely won’t be the one making key executive moves – you’re not even around. The most likely person to make any backfill is the person to whom that position needing a backfill reports, not the one in the position. For this reason, it’s imperative that executives know not just their direct reports, they need to know the employee population at least two levels beneath them.

Guess what? I have facilitated numerous succession planning efforts where executives have no idea who reports to their direct reports. Photos don’t even jar their memory (and can be controversial in this context). “You rode up on the elevator with them.” Still don’t know them.

  1. It’s based on the strongest of psychological biases.

Too many positions are filled based on the “like me” method. Naturally, we’re wired to think that we are exactly what “my” position needs, therefore I am looking for a “mini-me.” Well, you may think you’re at the center of the universe (face it, we all do), but if you ask others, you’ll get a very different point of view. Others in the organization may not want your backfill to be a mini you. That’s a good perspective to cultivate but it’s almost impossible when you’re in the room. This is why politics play such a strong role in most succession planning.

  1. It’s personal, not organizational.

This is another bias that inserts itself in the succession planning process. Leaders are VERY sensitive about “their people.” In fact, a leader oftentimes acts as though “their people” are just like family members – and sometimes THEY ARE, but this is a whole other concern not to be addressed here. Regardless, they aren’t “you’re people,” they’re the organization’s people.

  1. It’s based on flawed judgement.

Even for the few occasions that I have someone tell me they’re a poor judge of people, guess who weighs in on talent to fill open positions? Yep, everyone has a point of view when it comes to selection. And the closer that selection is to the individual, the stronger their judgement gets.

Studies consistently find human judgement to be a bad predictor of actual talent. If only those who are right when they admit that they’re a poor judge of talent actually deferred to more objective, scientific means of assessment. But they don’t. Sometimes the best you can do is to present decision makers with well-designed psychometric instruments that do make accurate assessments and hope that reasoned, versus inferred judgement prevails. This works best when the judge knows a bit about how the given psychometric tools work. In many cases, science will make an impact. You’ve got to take the magic out of the assessment and encourage those who “lean in” to a better way.

Succession Planning - Done Right

  1. Think of succession planning as progression planning.

Instead of priming defensive and myopic mindsets with terms like “succession,” “my successor” and “backfill” use terms like “progression,” “strategic,” “organization,” and “future fill.” This can even help with the personal biases as you and history are intrinsically bound. (See #s 2, 3, 4 and 5) Good succession planning isn’t possible without good strategic planning. Your talent for the future should look like what you need in the future, not what you’ve had in the past.

  1. Have leaders discuss talent at least two levels below them.

The first time you do this you may find yourself in a circular loop, “we can’t talk about the talent because we don’t know this talent” meets, “we don’t know this talent because we’ve never talked about this talent.”

That’s actually a good start. When leaders admit they need deeper insight you have the opportunity to improve on those shallow evaluations. Ignorance can be your saving grace! I’d much rather work with a leader that “doesn’t know everything” and is right about that than one who’s confident in their wrongful thinking. Now’s a good time to introduce better assessments and more strategic thinking.

  1. Train leaders in good assessment and talent management.

This is a big deal. You have to take the “like me” person out of assessment. Otherwise you have the old cliché, “when you’re a hammer, the world looks like a nail.” And since diversity and inclusion are nowhere near where they need to be in organizations – especially at the senior most levels, you need the seasoned group of executives to really recognize and know talent that isn’t at all like them. But good, accurate, assessment is hard and typically counter intuitive. Still, it’s not impossible to have a leader acknowledge that their best replacement won’t look like them.

  1. Ensure leaders discuss not only “their” function, make them responsible for all of the organization's functions.

Leaders think in their silos and don’t want others messing with their kingdom. That’s all wrong. You need to open up and break personal “myndsets” and create organizational mindsets. After all, these are individuals entrusted with the future of the organization – not just one function or group. By getting leaders to talk about talent in other groups you also improve the likelihood of cross-functional moves. These are critical to effective succession planning as they work to create organization leaders versus expert leaders. Well-rounded talent knows more than accounting.

  1. Use properly validated assessments.

Study after study show that good psychometrics beat good assessors. While there are exceptions, you aren’t one of them. Moreover, research finds that “good assessors” primarily are good at assessing specific characteristics or traits – but not all. A comprehensive set of psychological assessments used by an expert in workplace psychology should be mandatory for proper succession planning. Furthermore, studies show that training assessors with the framing reference of properly validated psychometrics actually improves their personal evaluations.

Good succession planning shouldn’t be a blind date. Open leadership’s eyes to the talents of new, unknown talent and give them the tools to truly know that talent. Only by clarifying what’s needed in the future for the organization can you break some of psychology’s strongest biases to truly ensure organization continuity AND progress.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

People with no personality are more common than you think

An empty suit

“They have no personality.” We’re all familiar with this casual saying (it’s no compliment) and we know not to take it literally (or out for drinks). But what exactly does, or could it, mean? Have you ever thought about what “no personality” really looks like?

Personality is arguably the most popular and practical contribution psychology has made to society. Here is a construct or phenomenon that isn’t just for geeky researchers but is decidedly mainstream. From selection assessments and team building events to everyday use and language, personality is big these days; heck, dating services may be the “biggest users” of personality assessments going and everyone has been on a dating site (admit it). Personality is obviously important, so what does it mean when we say someone has no personality?

A literal interpretation would be to say the person really isn’t a person (why do you think we call it PERSONality?). Instead, “no personality” has come to describe someone with a behavioral style of little interest (aka, “boring”).  An apt simile is that no personality is like (plain ‘ole) vanilla ice cream – familiar to all but not the most colorful. But “no personality” is more accurately described as “light” vs. zero personality – featureless but not absent, what are we really talking about?

So, what does “no personality” look like?

Naturally, we know that this saying is not to be taken literally – everyone has something worth listening to (if they don’t then they’re just boring, not a personality-less plant.) Nevertheless, we speak of personality in quantifiable terms, e.g., “Sally has a lot of personality,” the opposite of boring. To have a lot of personality is comparable to interesting and enthusiastic.

So, is it possible for someone (conscious) to have no personality? Literally? The answer depends on how we interpret the words, “no personality.”

{Obviously this is an abstract concept, in part defined by semantics. Nevertheless, the label “no personality” is a fixture – if informal - in characterizing people.}

In this case, “no” refers to a non-existent quantity. We’ve already agreed that there is no such thing as zero personality in a living person, but zero personality does not equal no personality. For all the personality tests I’ve administered, I’ve never had one come back with no scores.

But I have worked with many people who have no ONE definitive personality – or “type.”  I’m not talking about the clinical issues associated with split personality. Some individuals simply don’t have a personality type.

In fact, none do.

The first key to this puzzle is in the specific meaning of “one personality.” If we think of personality as behavioral style, then everyone has one. It’s like the SAT, you get 200 points just for putting your name on it. But if we think of personality as a “type” then I think you’d agree that no one is perfectly described by one “type.”

People change. (It’s what keeps psychologists in business.)

What someone does today may not predict what they do tomorrow. That’s because behavior varies within the repertoire of one person just like it does between people. Today may be a good day for “head down, GSD” while tomorrow may bring about behavior associated with taking a vacation. The way we act in worship probably doesn’t predict what we do (how we behave) at a party. Same person, different behavior.

But not that much. (It’s what keeps personality practitioners in business.)

Especially not after reaching adulthood (which is later than you think; about 30 years old) by which time it’s been estimated that 90% of personality (behavioral style) is in place. Imagine how difficult things would be if people were completely unpredictable even if you like variety. Communication and social behavior in general depend on some degree of consistency – it’s required to allow reliable interpretation.

Some change more than others.

Research has suggested that Emotional Intelligence, also referenced by its quantitative measure, “Emotional Quotient” (EQ), is more predictive of performance and satisfaction than intellectual intelligence, or IQ. This is a big deal.

Emotional intelligence pertains to an individual’s ability to identify and respond accordingly to the pleasure and expectations of present company in an emotionally effective manner. Unlike most psychological research, EQ is a rather simple and practical phenomenon that has become quite popular with the general public thanks to Daniel Goleman, a science reporter for the New York Times. Goleman “chanced” upon the term in the academic literature, simplified and refined the concept and described it.

Just how much of a breakthrough is EQ?

“Self-monitoring” was defined by Mark Snyder as an attribute related to the cross-situational consistency of behavior well before Daniel Goleman’s article that launched the EQ movement. Self-monitoring refers to the ability to discern another person’s or group’s attitude and moderate one’s own behavior to suit intentions for the other.

The stability, hence, predictability, of an individual’s behavior depends on the degree to which a person is a high or low self-monitor.

People with low scores on self-monitoring behave relatively consistently from situation to situation. These are people of principle that are less concerned with being popular than with being right. As a result, people with low self-monitoring scores act more predictably across situations.

People with high self-monitoring scores tend to be entertaining, attractive and popular. Elected politicians are among the prototypical example of high self-monitors. The high self-monitor can determine and adopt the mood of the audience in order to be more relevant and potentially influential to the individual or group.

People that have high levels of self-monitoring are less likely to be behaviorally consistent in a crowd. These are the people often referred to as “social chameleons.” They’re one person with corresponding behavior in one group and “another person” with a different group.

Can a single score capture all the behavior for an individual on a given trait?

Most personality test reports provide a single score for an individual on various characteristics. This can be considered the average behavior as scores reflect the responses to items comprising the trait. While averages are useful to capture the degree to which a reflects some personality attribute, they are not always that accurate. For example, Sally and Jeff may receive the same score on extraversion, but the way they get there is different. This can be illustrated by examining the responses that make up a given character trait.

Sally

Jeff

Although Sally and Jeff have essentially the same average on extraversion Sally and Jeff are not that similar. Sally could be described as being moderately extraverted. Jeff, however, appears to be extraverted about half the time. Essentially, Jeff is harder to predict based on his “split” responses to items that make up the behavior (in this case, extraversion).

Jeff’s responses are consistent with those of a person high in self-monitoring. He may be more extraverted with a group of friends (items 8, 9, 10) versus a group of strangers (items 1 and 2). One can’t say whether Jeff is extraverted or not.

Self-monitoring changes the interpretation of personality tests

Although self-monitoring can be inferred based on item/scale scores (see “Jeff”, above), going the other direction (i.e., from self-monitoring to the behaviors) is more helpful. Since self-monitoring is actually a sub dimension of Emotional Intelligence, EQ scores provide a proxy for self-monitoring. Armed with knowledge of an individual’s EQ scores the interpretation of high self-monitors must be distinguished from low self-monitors.

Low self-monitors are who they are for the most part. Interpreting personality test scores from these individuals is relatively straightforward and reliable. Low self-monitors are generally well described by their scores and their environment is not that much of an influence, they will be consistent regardless of the context.

High self-monitors, on the other hand, are highly influenced by their environment. In the right circumstances they may demonstrate one behavior, in another something else. In order to predict how a high self-monitor will behave it is beneficial to know about their environment; as the environment goes, so goes the high self-monitor.

No <ONE> personality

High self-monitors provide one example of how a given individual cannot be said to have one personality type. In this case, the more accurate assessment would be that the individual’s behavior varies. The same is true for low self-monitors but not to the same degree.

To summarize, people’s behavior is the result of both person- and environmental factors. As such, taking a personality test at face value is unlikely and under-informed, other data must be included for the best picture.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

What your Personality Test Report says about You

Business man's hand plotting people's personality test report scores on a grid

People are frequently amazed at the accuracy of their personality test report. These reports can be powerfully enlightening as they describe an individual’s tendencies and character traits from what appears to be an objective point of view. When given the opportunity to review their report, I haven’t had one person defer. Everyone wants to know what their report says about them – whether they agree with it or not.

But sometimes personality test results are misleading and of no use at all. And it happens more often than you’d think.

In an experiment with college sophomores, a traditional favorite for academic researchers, the accuracy of personality tests was put to its own test. Following completion and scoring of a personality test given to all of the students in the class, the researcher asked for a show of hands from those for whom the test report accurately described them. A sizeable majority of hands went up – the report was an accurate depiction. There’s one thing they didn’t know:

Everyone got exactly the same report.

Yep. {I wish I’d thought of this first.}

Despite everyone completing the test in their personally distinctive manner, only one report was copied and distributed to the entire class of subjects. No matter how similar you may think college sophomores are, they’re not so identical as to yield precisely identical personality profiles. But still, a “J. Doe” report was viewed as a perfect fit to most. How does this happen?

Take a read of one of your personality test results. If you’re like most, you’ve completed several of these assessments and probably still have a report or two laying around. When reading your report take note of the following indicators of BS reports:

  1. Conditional Statements: The number of times the words “may,” “might,” “sometimes” show up

Example: “You may be unsure of yourself in a group.”

How “may?” Like, maybe, “90% unsure”, or “maybe completely confident?” The reader typically fills in this blank unwittingly giving the report a “pass.”

  1. Compensatory Observations: The number of times opposing behaviors are presented next to each other

Example: “You have a hard time sharing your feelings in a group. However, with the right group you find it refreshing to get your emotions ‘off your chest.’”

So which are you? A paranoid prepper? Or a chest pounding demonstrator? Either one of these opposing types could fit by this example.

  1. General Statements: The specificity of the descriptions, or lack thereof

Example: “You maintain only a few close friends.”

This statement is pretty much true by definition. It’s certainly up for interpretation such that it is befitting for all.

  1. Differentiating Statements: {fewer is worse} The uniqueness of the descriptions.

Example: “Privately, you feel under qualified for the things others consider you to be expert at.”

The lack of differentiating statements is not exactly the same as making general statements. A specific statement may not be differentiating. The above example is specific, but not distinctive as a fairly large percentage of people do feel under qualified for even their profession.

The point is, anyone can be right when they:

  1. Speak in couched probabilities,
  2. about “both-or” samples of a given behavior,
  3. in very general terms,
  4. about things that many people experience.

These four “hacks” provide all the latitude needed for ANY report to make you think it has “nailed you.”

Beyond these tactics, many give too much credit to the personality test. Frequently reports are simply feeding you back EXACTLY what you put in via your responses. For example, the item, “I like to organize things” may show up in a report as, “You like to organize things.” There were probably more than a hundred items on the test – you probably don’t remember every response you made for every item.

Another way folks give too much credit to the personality test is by holding the belief that the instrument should be right. Beyond your general position on the validity of personality tests, publishers have various tactics to make the test report more "scientific."

  1. Lots of statistics
  2. Lots of figures
  3. Distinguished endorsers
  4. Techno-babble

None of these things may have anything to do with the actual validity of the test. But research shows these things enhance people’s opinion of its validity.

What’s a good report look like?

  1. Good reports take a point of view. They provide specific summaries of behavioral style that really are uniquely you. If you gave the report to a friend and told them this was their report, they’d honestly say that it doesn’t accurately depict them – even if the two of you are inseparable. Fit is determined by both accommodation and exclusion. A good report speaks to you and no one else.
  2. Better reports don’t provide any narrative at all. They simply provide normative scores on the various dimensions (i.e., characteristic behaviors) covered by the test. This type of report allows an expert to interpret the full spectrum of dimensions in the broader context. Good interpreters know what to look for in terms of how the dimensions interact with each other and can further specify the evaluation with just a bit of extra information on the respondent. This does not mean that they already know the subject. It may be as little as knowing why or when the person completed the assessment.
  3. Great reports present just the facts. The report is a fairly straightforward summary of your responses, organized by dimension (trait) and compared to a group of others’ responses/scores. Better still, great reports provide more than one score per dimension, or the average. They also give some indication of the variations in responses by dimension. This allows the interpreter to know just how confident a given score is. No variance = high confidence. Wide variance = low confidence.

So, what does your report really say about you? Depending on the factors I’ve outlined – it may say nothing at all (or worse).

It really helps to know some of this stuff.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.