Mr. P K Nilosey
Retd. Vice President-HR, L&T Heavy Engineering
Succession Planning and Career Planning are commonly talked terms in HR parlance. While most large and enlightened organizations are doing a fair job in succession planning, the same cannot be said for career planning. A very small percentage of organizations may be doing a decent career planning exercise. Skipping jargons, let us understand the two terms in simple words:
Succession planning is the process of keeping a chain of succession ready to fill up any position (generally key positions) falling vacant due to separation of the current incumbent. The separation may be due to promotion, transfer, resignation, dismissal, retirement or death. There are two dominating points in this process – the organization and the position. The organization is prepared to deal with the separation and the position gets filled up by a pre-identified and selected person. The person is groomed in advance, to take over the role. Basically, meeting the organizational need of continuation of the function with minimum impact of separation of the incumbent. It may or may not meet the individual employee’s aspiration. The process is “ORGANIZATION CENTRIC”.
On the other hand, career planning is EMPLOYEE CENTRIC and the benefit to organization is incidental or a by-product. It seeks to create an employee’s career path, considering her abilities and aspirations on one hand and the organizational needs like filling up the positions with optimum fits and creating leadership pipeline on the other. Now, what most organizations do is identify high potential employees, put them through Assessment/Development Centres, put them through a plethora of high-end training and development programs that are available aplenty, and prepare them for generalist leadership roles. The results of these programs have been fair to very good, and organizations have benefitted immensely by this investment in human capital.
But, the process has some drawbacks. Organizations cover only high potential employees, around 5 to 15% of the employee strength in such programs. The vast majority of other valuable employees, who are vital to the organization’s performance are left out. They also have aspirations and desire to know, what plans the organization has for them. It becomes an employee engagement issue (Most employee engagement surveys ask questions like “Do you get opportunity to do what you do best, everyday?” or “In last six months, has someone talked to you about your progress?”). In fact, many of these “good” or “very good” performers can be converted to “excellent” performers, if their careers are planned systematically. Second, these programs many times ignore, whether an employee is a specialist or a generalist or a combination of both and put them through the same basket of programs. We find some of the brightest physicians and surgeons promoted to become below average hospital superintendents, dealing with employee unions and investigations for corruption in their purchase departments. They remain under constant pressure, do not enjoy their jobs and end up as average performers, because their aptitude and aspirations were overlooked while carving the growth path.
So, what we see is, except for some high performers, most other employees floating on, moved from one role to other role depending upon vacancy and employees’ capabilities, availability (read- can be spared) and willingness to take the role. Many employees perform well in these roles and make successes. But, this is not career planning.
Key elements of a good Career Planning Program:
- It considers employees capabilities, potential and aspirations.
- It seeks to moderate the employee aspirations closer to reality.
- It takes employee’s consent and agreement for the chosen path.
- It considers organization’s current and future needs.
- It covers a period of three to ten years (May change from organization to organization)
- It is top driven and must have the blessings and support of top management and leadership.
A Real-Life Case:
The author had an opportunity to design and implement a career planning program in one of the organizations he worked. It was one of a unique kind, with the support and blessings of the top management.
The key objectives of the program:
- Encourage the employees to introspect and honestly examine their capabilities and potential.
- Encourage the employees to verbalize their dreams and aspirations like: “Where do you see yourself after five years and when you retire?”
- Create a high level of confidence among the employees that someone cares for their future and career and is honest about it.
- Through intense probe and discussions create a growth path for employees with optimal role-employee fit and meeting organizational needs.
- Final deliverable: A five-year career path for the selected employees, duly approved by top management and communicated to the individual employees.
The Career Planning Program – Design & Implementation:
For first batch, persons in the middle of their careers were selected. They were typically engineering / management graduates or chartered accountants, with about 15-20 years of experience, designations ranging from senior managers to senior deputy general managers and having performance ratings from average to outstanding. Batch size around 40.
An invitation letter was sent to each of these selected participants explaining the objectives and importance of the program to the employees as well as the organization. It was not a bulk mail, and each employee was addressed by her first name and each letter was signed by the HR Head. This created an immediate connect and immense goodwill. There were many emotional reactions to these letters. Along with the invitation, a questionnaire was sent in the form of an excel file. There were questions asking employee’s perception about herself – under various heads ranging from functional abilities , managerial abilities, leadership styles, communication abilities, dreams and aspirations, family support ( Like, does your spouse actively support you / indifferent / or actively disapproves your involvement with the organization ( late stay, travel, business meetings etc).
Meanwhile, HR team compiled a detailed dossier for each participant – starting from first job, all the promotions, postings, job rotations, special awards / negatives, specific remarks by superiors, etc. Now, it was time for a discussion with individual participants. The panel comprised the Business Head or Unit Head ( Board level or next)and the HR Head (The author) The employee was to be accompanied by her HOD. A comfortable environment was created. Once ice was broken, the employees talked everything. Their successes, failures, frustrations, aspirations, attitude, aptitude, relationship with colleagues etc. One key factor was, whether the person desires to grow as a specialist, a generalist or a combination of both. This is critical to determine, in a career planning exercise. They were also asked, how the organization could assist them in reaching their career objectives. In some cases, the participants were aspiring too high, well beyond their capabilities. The panel members acted as moderators, facilitated and counselled in arriving at what is she good at and what roles will meet her aspirations and help realize the dreams.
At the end of the discussions, the employee and the panel members arrived at three preferred options for growth path in next five years, that may meet employee’s aspirations and organizational needs as well. The employees were told that there was no commitment, but the HR and the organization would make honest attempt to put her on one of the three paths. The employees were asked to give anonymous feedback on the session and almost all questions replied in superlatives by all. They were thrilled. Somebody cared. Once all the discussions were over, that took close to three months, a presentation was made to the top leadership. The meeting was chaired by the director. Each employee’s case was discussed, her capabilities, potential and a possible growth path. In some cases, totally new ideas came from the leadership, such as movement to a different business group or a joint venture company or an overseas assignment.
The outcome was captured in an excel file. Again, the same panel sat. The employees and their HODs were called and the outcome of the meeting with the leadership was conveyed. Again, no commitment but a sincere intent to implement the plan. This backward communication is seen as crucial to the success of the program. In later years, the HR team succeeded in implementing the plans for over 60% of the participants. Subsequently, larger sections of the employees were included in the program.
Like many other functions, HR also has some processes and concepts that are much talked but rarely practiced on the ground. Career Planning is one such process. Unlike succession planning, career planning is “Employee Centric”. It creates a pool of “right fit” and motivated employees and leadership pipeline, removes ambiguity and guesswork about future and thus a more effective workforce. It is a strong “Employee Engagement” driver. Creates an emotional bond with the organization and reduces attrition. The program is “Top Driven” and can succeed only if the top management and HR Head are passionate about implementing it. A sincere approach is pre-requisite.