Succession planning done across an organization can be complex, especially when the planning is integrating a new department or role that is unfamiliar to the management team or employees who may be viable candidates.

A reader recently shared her story with me:

The succession planning has been going on in our organization for a number of years, and the head of each area has worked with their management teams to identify high potential resources for different roles.

My role and area consists of only a couple of people. We have implemented a new area to complete a new function in the organization, so there previously was no succession planning done for my role or area.

The skills and qualities of the resources required to take over these specific roles are very different, so I have been identifying roles and individuals within the organization that would have transferable skills. Most of these people are partners in my current role, so having conversations about whether they feel my role would be something they would be interested in learning more about is not going to cause any unnecessary damage.

The concern that I have though is who is out there with the skills and transferable knowledge or have the potential and desire to learn them that I am unaware.

My question was directed at how to approach other senior leaders within the organization to see if they have any high potentials that potentially would like to learn my role or build some of the skill sets, so they could complete for the role should it become available.

Often succession plans are role based in nature. There is a typical hierarchy within an organization. Let’s take the example below in the accounting department.

The CFO may be focusing on growing talent internally within the department because there is a natural progression of learning and testing skills in situations. During succession planning discussions, it would be natural for the CFO to couch an employee’s potential in terms of “accounting skills” vs. looking at the broader skills that make up a good analyst.

For example, in another department, there is a marketing analyst. How viable is it for this employee to move into an accounting role despite the functions being dramatically different?

The question becomes which is easier: teaching people to be an analyst or familiarizing them with another function?

When succession planning moves to the level of taking about skills and abilities vs. functional alignment and sometimes protection, the organization will realize more opportunities for cross training between departments – one of the factors to groom General Managers.

Many organizations may say they do this already, I would challenge them – to what extent and what are the results. If the management team does not know the skill sets of employees in different parts of the organization, then there is work to do.

This is no easy task and quite frankly, there may be some resistance because it will take more time and effort. Are there other easier alternatives or work-a-rounds to consider that might deliver results?

Here are some alternatives to consider:

Offer to use your role or function as an example. Inquire if the Human Resources department is doing any training – it could be training on performance reviews, career management or development planning.  This is one way to deliver a message broadly and consistently.

Invite specific employees to shadow you for a day. With the permission of the management team, institute a shadowing program where you can continue to build linkages of what your function does to the rest of the organization. The other manager should  welcome organizational communication and teamwork.

Create a trading places program. Offer to trade one of your employees with another department’s employee for a day, week or month based on comparable skill sets. The upside is twofold. You will gain insight into another person’s capabilities and interest and the employee will get to test ride a role. Debrief the employee afterwards – the chances are both departments will glean insights on how to improve their systems and processes – a key quality in choosing high potentials.

The approaches I have outlined for working with Sr. Management will address the “what’s it in for them”; allowing you to showcase your role and function with others. Over time, there will be a better understanding of what makes your role and department “tick” and it will be easier to bridge the skills and abilities discussions in succession planning sessions.

What have other options might be considered?