One of the biggest challenges facing business today is planning strategically for an orderly and productive management succession by identifying and preparing future leaders from existing talent pools. Many companies have gone through a period of attrition over the past several years. By surviving round after round of job cuts, there is little doubt that the remaining talent pool is pretty highly skilled. And companies have not done a very good job in designing, delivering and implementing a structure for identifying future leaders in their organizations in part because they don’t talk about it formally.
Too often, instead of happening formally in the conference room, these “missing conversations” are happening, informally, in the hallways and on airplanes. Executives recognize the need for the process, and they talk about the need to develop strategic talent and leadership competencies, yet they are not engaging in a formal or organized setting. There is the likelihood that someone on the leadership team is going to be afraid of revealing some of his or her own inadequacies when it comes to a more formal process for succession planning. Unless there is a high level of implicit trust and someone has the courage to put this on the table, those necessary discussions are not going to happen in a group setting. But that’s a risk organizations must take if they want to grow their talent. Support for the process must come from the top.
“Let us make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.”
— Mark Twain
One way to approach this issue is to employ a leadership style of curious inquiry, an inclusive style that invites individuals to share their ideas for change without posing a threat to them and their position in the organization. Thus, instead of asking, “Why haven’t you developed such and-such competency in your operating unit or a succession plan?” a leader could ask the following questions:
-- What competencies do we need to achieve our goal?
-- How might we best develop those competencies?”
-- When can we begin the critical succession planning initiative work?
A key part of eliminating the missing conversations inside organizations is to use questions that begin with “what” and “how” to evoke a thoughtful response. Because we know that questions beginning with “why” evoke emotion responses and are often threatening to people, those questions tend to put people or teams on the defensive, and they will likely shut down. As a leader, it’s time to ask yourself what conversations are missing inside your organization. And remember, fulfillment is at the heart of organizational and individual performance. It also works at home. Just ask my wife what happened to our missing conversations.
WJM Faculty member John S. Arnold is an executive coach, business consultant, speaker, author.