By ASHLEY CAMPBELL
20 years in human resources, Peter Leathley has experienced many approaches to succession planning. And he's come to realise that a lot of them don't work anymore.
Take replacement planning, for example. You draw up a succession plan with your key roles, the names of the incumbents and the names of the people you see stepping up to those roles. A year later you revisit it, and what do you find?
"The people have disappeared or the roles have disappeared or sometimes both," says Leathley, general manager of human resources for office products company Boise.
But last year, Leathley was introduced to a new concept that struck him as the way Boise should prepare for the future: acceleration pools.
Developed by William C. Byham of international human resources agency DDI, acceleration pools represent a sea of change in the development of business leaders.
Out is Corporate Darwinism - where only the fittest survive - replacement planning and graduate programmes that accept only bright young things for one-size-fits-all training.
In their place is the idea that businesses should grow their own leaders from wherever in the company it finds them.
"It's being driven by the increasing demand for leaders and the increasing failure of leaders from the last century's context," says Roz McCay, a partner in Sheffield, which is promoting the concept in New Zealand.
"The role of leaders is changing rapidly. They need to be able to process a whole lot more information, they need to be more technologically literate, they need to be able to cope with change as part of their role - they are dealing with a lot more ambiguity."
No longer can aspiring leaders plot a career path through one functional area and expect to end up at the top. They might become specialists with a detailed knowledge of, say, marketing or finance but would have no broad understanding of the business in all its complexity. And complex organisations need competent generalists at the top.
Which is exactly what acceleration pools create.
It works like this: the company defines what its future success will look like. Then it defines what qualities, knowledge and skills future leaders will need to achieve that success.
The next step is to identify employees with those qualities, identify gaps in their knowledge and skills and provide them with the experiences and learning they need to fill those gaps.
Acceleration pools provide lateral growth and development, with some steps up and some sideways, some assignments long-term, some short-term, some maybe even outside the business.
But all them stretch the pool members and add to their knowledge of, and competence in, the business.
Entry to the pool is entirely voluntary. It is achieved by demonstrating potential and by accepting the process.
Every pool member knows exactly what they're expected to achieve and remaining there depends on achieving it. No one is forced to enter, no one is guaranteed to stay, and exiting once continued membership stops being a personal goal, or individuals have reached the limit of their development, is not seen as any kind of failure.
The process requires significant commitment from the business in terms of resources and time to set up, but once it's up and running, it is claimed to take less time and paperwork than traditional approaches to succession planning, while producing better results.
Identifying pool members is one area in which businesses would be well advised to accept outside help, says McCay, so the process doesn't get caught up in the inevitable office politics.
"There are four dimensions of leadership potential, that in the main are quite observable," she says. The first is leadership promise, which McCay defines as "having the motivation to lead people, having a style that brings out the best in others".
Then there's orientation towards development - an ability to receive feedback and a desire to build capability; the ability to cope with complexity; and an ability to balance organisational values and attain results.
Once identified, the potential leaders are put through what is variously called an assessment or acceleration centre, spending a day assuming the role of a leader in the organisation, making the decisions leaders have to make, and dealing with the crises they have to deal with. This identifies the gaps in their knowledge and competencies.
It's then up to the business to identify opportunities in which those people can acquire the knowledge and skills they need to close those gaps. And that's not as difficult as it might sound.
For example, says McCay, if an entry-level employee is identified as leadership material and enters the pool, simply putting them in charge of a project would increase their competence.
The project would have a definite start, a definite finish and a definite objective. The employee would know exactly what they were meant to achieve, and the result would be relatively easily measured against the objective.
Another growth opportunity might occur if, for example, the chief executive had to make a presentation to the board. Why not hand the task to an acceleration pool member? Or if the IT system needs updating, drawing up the feasibility plan sounds suspiciously like an acceleration pool task.
Boise is still in the very early stages of setting up its acceleration pool, but Leathley is already thinking further ahead, anticipating that the company might have two acceleration pools - one for those already immediately below key leadership roles, and one for those who have not yet assumed any kind of leadership, but show potential.
He anticipates that the first step to pool entry will be self-nomination, with all employees able to measure themselves against published criteria.
Transparency at all stages will be vital to employee buy-in, he says, both for pool members and for employees not in the pool, whether by choice or simply because they don't meet the criteria.
Leathley is clear about what the payoff for Boise will be.
"The single biggest benefit is going to be an organisation that's talent-rich, and we are going to have people who are ready to step up into leadership roles and take us forward."
By ASHLEY CAMPBELL