Succession and Promotion Have to Be About More Than Manager Opinion

7 mins

Succession and Promotion have to be about more than manager opinion.

By J. Kevin Kelly, Rhabit CEO, and co-founder

Twitter: @j_k_kelly


I once sat in on a succession planning meeting at a company I worked for where the various leaders pulled up a list on a shared screen of employees. Over the course of the next couple of hours would walk through the list, with each employee’s respective manager talking about the two dimensions of that person that traditional succession planning processes look at - potential and performance.  

The goal of these two measures is to quantify what any given employee is contributing right now in terms of their work products and the hazier of the two, potential, should seek to define if this person is showing a capacity to take on greater responsibility, impact, or complexity. 

The problem with subjective succession planning

The problem with the approach that was being taken was that each manager, when presented with a given employee that reported to them, would simply talk anecdotally about the employee.  

Where this company’s succession planning process fell short:

  1. There was no presentation of any formal data.  
  2. No one shared the objectives, tasks, projects, etc that the person had contributed to.  No one shared any example of the deliverables that they had produced as evidence of their ability.  
  3. No one presented standardized measures, longitudinal data, multi-rater sourced feedback, none of the awesome stuff we would go to build at Rhabit.  

These were people who were defending the case for someone to get promoted based strictly on their singular memory of events.  There were no checks and balances of data, it was just the singular opinion and words of one person that would decide the fate of multiple people from entire teams in an organization.  

It was just storytelling, which wasn’t invaluable, but when I look back at the people who ultimately would move up in the organization, it was mainly those that their manager could tell a compelling story about, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this process was terribly fair.  

The more shocking part would come years later for me when I realized that this process was completely normal.  These calibration meetings or organizational assessment meetings almost always followed this model.  The classic nine-box that so many of my talent management folks are familiar with isn’t inherently flawed (though I would argue that a better two-dimensional measure would be the frequency of observed behavior x performance instead of “potential”), but rather the process in which people are assigned to the quadrants of the nine-box is where all the failure happens. 

 It doesn’t matter how structured, comprehensive, or consistent your succession and promotion process is after you’ve assigned them to their quadrant if your measurement process that got them there was based solely on conjecture and single-rater data.  Yes, if you’ve built a solid organization you should be able to trust your leaders, but just like in the security world, I encourage talent managers to adopt a “trust and verify” mentality, where it’s fine to give the manager a voice in the process of succession planning but demand that you have proper measurement processes that keep include a data source that the manager cannot easily manipulate or ignore. 

What can make succession planning objective - or at least fair? 

One great source of high-quality data for succession planning is continuous feedback platforms, especially those that allow you to get multi-rater feedback on observed behaviors like Rhabit.  If you’re able to source feedback about an employee's performance from people other than the manager you can easily validate strong opinions.  Anyone who is being pushed hard as a high-potential employee would likely have great feedback from their entire work collaboration sphere or at least a good portion of it outside of the direct leader.  

Conversely, anyone who was genuinely having performance issues will likely leave a mark on the organization that others will notice, not just their manager.  In fact, by selectively including certain types of peer data in a performance management process, your organization is more likely to identify organizational performance problems at the individual level much faster than simply relying on leaders who might have large teams and lack the ability to be attentive to subtle shifts in performance.  

Leaders with large work teams might catch performance issues far after they’ve crossed a threshold for action, but if you have a good measurement process that can detect perception of performance from other sources, you’re more likely to head these off earlier and potentially save talent that can be developed successfully.  

A good measurement process is the first step to well-crafted succession planning

Collecting data for talent processes can be challenging to set up, especially if it’s a big change for your organization, but the payoff can far exceed the efforts as these checks and balances ensure not only that you’re running a fair and equitable succession process, but that you’re building a culture that is fundamentally and transparent in how it measures success within the organization.  

Companies that are perceived as holding people accountable in this manner are twelve times more likely to retain their employees than companies where people don’t observe well-structured performance processes creating accountability.  This doubles down on the criticality of designing a succession process that includes consistent multi-sourced measurement as part of your fundamental talent management infrastructure.

If you’d like to learn more about designing effective and equitable performance management, leadership development, employee engagement measurement, or succession planning processes, the team at Rhabit would love to connect and share some examples of what our customers are doing in the real world.  You can always book a demo with us and speak to someone who consults talent executives, not a pushy salesperson, or you can talk to us if you’re going to be at SIOP’s Leading Edge Consortium on October 7th. 

Til next time,

Kevin and the Rhabit Team

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