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HR Briefing, Secrecy and succession planning the unintended consequences of the yellow sheet

HR Briefing, Secrecy and succession planning – the unintended consequences of the yellow sheet

Secrecy and succession planning have long gone hand in hand – is this just a bad habit we can’t seem to shake or are there good reasons for the clandestine approach we see so often in our board rooms?

Succession planning is all about managing risk and safeguarding business continuity.  It’s important – investors and shareholders want to know that it is happening, and HR Directors are often charged with the task, typically driving an annual process which aims to ensure a clear succession plan for at least the top 3 layers of their organisation.  Lots of HR time is invested as charts are presented, gaps in the list are identified, the lack of talent is bemoaned, and some specific development activities for high potential groups are agreed.  But interestingly, surveys consistently show that most of these succession activities take place behind closed doors and that individuals rarely know if they are ‘on the list’ or not, unless they catch things via the rumour mill.  Rather than reducing risk, this secrecy can increase it – we hear of many cases when this whole activity is worthless; the people with their names in the boxes don’t want the job they are ear-marked for.

Why all the secrecy?

Keeping succession secret is understandable – it feels dangerous to talk openly about it.  There seem to be three main reasons why transparency feels dangerous:
  • Raising expectations.  Quite rightly, there are concerns about raising expectations which can’t be met – and this is valid.  Research shows the people who know they are on the ‘high potential’ list are often far less satisfied with the career development support they receive.
  • Reduced engagement.  There are also well-founded concerns about a negative impact on people not on the plan.  Many of these people are high performers, key to organisational success, but not considered to be suitable successors – why risk upsetting them? 
  • Fairness.  Finally, there are concerns about the robustness of the decision making – a worry that if everything is open, people may question the fairness of decisions and challenge why they are not considered to have potential – and for many organisations this decision making is still heavily informed by patronage, politics and an element of luck. 
All good reasons for keeping quiet, but  what are the consequences of this secrecy? 

Let me tell you a bit about my first experience with succession secrecy  -  about 25 years ago now.  I was an HR and Development Manager in a business unit of a large UK retail group.  The appraisal process was pretty standard, but generally done well.  However, there were murmurs among my peers about a mystery ‘yellow sheet’ that was filled in for some people, but not all.  This was said to contain information about your future career prospects that were discussed and agreed by the business unit board and then sent to group Head Office.  This was succession secrecy in action and I was curious. I managed to find out that the yellow sheet existed, and that one had been completed on me – but that was all the information I could glean.  I was left frustrated.  I wanted to know what had been said about me and I wanted to have some input, to possible future roles. I also wanted to know about the selection - why was I selected and other peers weren’t?  I was involved in coaching some of them and I wanted insights to help me to help them – but it was kept secret.  It also made me question the values of the organisation – we preached values of openness and honesty, but this process was the opposite. 

My experiences illustrate some of the problems of succession secrecy – problems that add up to a lot of unintended business risk.  
  • Lack of individual ownership:  If the individual has no input, how do you know that they want the role you have their name against? Is the succession plan informed by real evidence of aspirations?
  • Missed development opportunities: If assessment information is not shared, how can people start better utilising strengths and addressing weaknesses?  How can they take action to improve?
  • Reduced trust: If the organisation isn’t open about their plans and assessments, how does that impact relationships?  How does this role model the organisation’s espoused values?
  • Risk of unfair decisions:  If decisions regarding succession aren’t robust enough to stand up to scrutiny, are they fair?  Is there an undue reliance on patronage which can negatively impact diversity?

Given these consequences, isn’t it time we questioned succession secrecy?  Being open and transparent may be uncomfortable and it will certainly call for more direct and challenging conversations, but isn’t that a better foundation for working with our senior leaders? Doesn’t that role model how we want them to behave with their teams?

So, the next time you’re sat round a table, talking about succession planning, challenge yourself by asking some questions.  How secret are things round here?  What risks are there in the approach we are taking?  How could we be more open? Go on, I dare you!

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