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Succession planning: the lessons for politicians



Poloko Khabele – THE business fraternity is awakening to the importance of well managed and structured succession planning. There seems to be growing realisation that succession planning is critical to the future and long term health of an organisation.

With structured succession planning, an organization is assured a pipeline of leadership talent with sufficient depth and experience to take over the leadership of an organisation when the incumbent departs.

For many political parties however, when a new leader has to take over, the transition is seldom smooth.

The failure to effectively execute and manage succession planning leads to many disastrous consequences. There are many examples here and beyond our borders to illustrate this negative impact.

  • Political party leaders refusing to step down and using the pretext that their departure would create instability. This is a tell-tale sign that the leader has failed to carry out that important leadership responsibility to groom talent.
  • Parties with massive following self-destructing and imploding. Factions developing within parties and infighting flaring up as comrades jostle for power.

Proper succession planning curtails and obviates this bloodletting which has come to characterise changes in political leadership.

Even though well managed succession planning at many of our business organizations here is still new, it is fast gaining traction and is showing steady growth. One of our local banks seems to be getting this right.

These business leaders understand that failure to have proper succession planning is irresponsible leadership. Progressive business leaders therefore work hard to ensure proper talent identification and development as part of their leadership responsibility.

The obvious spinoff is that when there is a change at the helm of the organisation (planned or unplanned), there is a critical pool of talent waiting to take over.

New leaders who have come through a succession planning process have been found to be more successful when they ascend to the helm of their organisations than leaders who have not come through a similar process.

The reasons for this are many. It is not however my intention to dwell on these except perhaps to highlight a few points.

Organisations that are serious about succession planning do not treat it as a once off event i.e. only kicks in when the incumbent leaves. On the contrary, they treat succession planning as a process which unfolds over several years.

This has the advantage that it ensures sufficient time is devoted to identify and unearth the best talent an organisation has. So not one but several good potential candidates are identified for grooming.

The identified candidates are subjected to development programmes which provide opportunities for supportive and constructive feedback. Both supportive and constructive feedback are critical for leadership growth and development. No leader achieves greatness without them.

Another lever frequently used in most succession planning programmes is the rotation of candidates in different parts of the organisation. This presents candidates with on-the job stretch opportunities laden with learning opportunities they would otherwise not be exposed to.

They also receive structured coaching and mentoring opportunities essential for personal development and awareness. Both are important elements for good leadership.

There are lessons I would like to suggest political party leaders learn from business executives.

The first lesson is that the appointment of a successor is not the incumbent’s responsibility. The incumbent is only responsible for preparing and developing the talent to take over when they leave. Remember, it is the board which is responsible for selecting the next head of the organisation and not the outgoing CEO.

This is an important lesson for politicians. They need to devote their energies to grooming candidates to succeed them. The choice of their successor should be left with the membership of their parties.

The second key lesson is how to define the selection criteria to select a successor. A well-executed succession planning process ensures that the profile of the required candidate is defined by considering the future competitive and market context. Prevailing dynamics are not important. Competitive and market conditions likely to be encountered when the new leader takes over is what is considered.

With this approach, the situation frequently observed where a leader is selected based on their similarities with the incumbent is avoided. Instead, a leader with the skills set required to navigate challenges to be encountered in the future is selected.

The skill sets to be defined are usually grouped into three main categories. First are the required mindset and personal attributes of the leader. These are attributes related to how well the candidate is able to engage and inspire others and whether they are open minded or not.

Next are the leadership skills the candidate has. The focus here for example is on how the candidate is able to articulate a compelling vision and is able to drive high performance in the organisation as well their ability to groom and develop others.

Third is the know-how the individual possesses. This includes things such as industry knowledge, knowledge of organisational performance drivers etc.

Obviously, the criteria required to lead a political party is different. What is important however, is the lesson that the criteria be defined way ahead of the current leader stepping down. The focus has to be firmly set on what the future political landscape is likely to look like when the new leader takes over.

These are important lessons from business. They have the potential to make the difference between a political party floundering or flourishing.

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