The Inside Track - Olympic success and successful succession


As the dust settles on Great Britain’s most successful Olympics in over 100 years, I can admit I’m feeling a sense of withdrawal from the highs and lows of watching our nation’s finest compete on the world’s biggest stage. It’ll take me a little time to move on but fortunately I’ve got the comfort of looking forward to similar thrills and spills watching the second most important competition in the country this year - the Great British Bake Off.

I won’t be the only one moving on after this year’s Olympics however. Some athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders are already setting their goals even higher as they look forward to Tokyo. But you can also expect to see a host of transitions taking place as the medics, performance analysts, psychologists and strength & conditioning coaches look to take on new challenges in the sporting world and now is the perfect time to do it; being part of a medal-winning programme is a great badge of honour and the lure of professional sports like football, rugby and cricket must be hard to resist.

Some of these transitions may already be catered for but you can bet your bottom dollar that a good number won’t be and the various governing bodies will be moving to recruit and fill these gaps quickly in the coming months. Fortunately, it’s another 4 years until the next Olympics and they have time to manage the impact of this short-term dip in performance.

In the fast-moving world of business however this seems to be an issue which exists on a much less predictable basis and short-term dips in performance can be very costly. I’m often struck by the lack of preparedness of some organisations for the possibility that their leaders and talent might move on, retire or go off on long-term sick. The implications can be enormous and I recall one particular instance of working with a client to identify a successor to their CEO who had taken a decision to retire in a year’s time. There was a serious concern about the impact of announcing this retirement to the shareholders without having identified someone who was ready to step into his shoes. In this particular case we were unable to identify a ‘ready now’ successor but fortunately for our client, the CEO reversed his decision and they got away with it.

Even if it is not always done properly, the need to cater for the potential departures of C-Suite post-holders is at least acknowledged. But if one of my clients is right in asserting that talent is “anyone who contributes towards our competitive advantage as a business” then we really need to broaden our thinking beyond senior executives. To my mind, the responsibility needs to lie with leaders in the business to ensure this is done right, with the assistance of proper support and processes from HR.

So if you are reading this post and wondering what you can do, I suggest the following steps might help to trigger some thinking:

Top tips for succession planning

  1. Ask yourself ‘if I left tomorrow, would someone be ready to fill my shoes? If your answer is no, ask “what are the risks and how will this impact my legacy?”
  2. Ensure you have a clear understanding of the knowledge, skills, experience and attributes required for someone to be successful in the future, not just for today
  3. Hire for potential, not just current capability (read more on this in one of our previous blogs)
  4. Take the time to assess and identify who has future potential within your organisation
  5. Make sure people are having open and meaningful conversations about capability not just for now, but for the future, and which relate to their aspirations
  6. Provide opportunities for talent in your organisation to try out the kind of things they might need to do in future roles by offering ‘sideways’ as well as ‘upwards’ moves
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