Having HR Involved in Succession Planning is a Cardinal Sin

That title comes from a paragraph in Alan Weiss’ book The Consulting Bible, which reads:

Most organizations relegate succession planning to the human resources division of department, which is a cardinal sin. Succession planning is one of the most important strategic decisions that any enterprise engages in on a continuing basis, and is an executive accountability, never a staff funciton (and certainly never a function of an area with as little respect and clout as HR has in most organizations.)

Now I am a big fan of Alan’s and I have many of his books and try to follow his consulting advice. But, because of my view of HR I was a bit taken aback at that paragraph as well as this one.

This is the fundamental reason why you cannot entrust career development to the human resources department. It lacks the clout, the understanding of the organization’s strategic intent, and the competence to create and manage the system…. When you see the HR people tasked to find coaches or develop leadership programs, you know that senior management has abdicated its responsibility. …. When you ask anyone in the organization where you can find the best and the brightest no one is going to point you toward the HR offices.

Generally I talk about a subject and then offer my point of view and steps to be followed. However, in this post I am looking for reactions. I want to hear from you. What do you think of Weiss’ statements? Is he on or off the mark in your organization? And once you have reacted pass this on to your management team and get there reaction.
Please report back by leaving a comment, even if it is an anonymous one. I really want to know.

9 thoughts on “Having HR Involved in Succession Planning is a Cardinal Sin”

  1. The statements are sad, but true.
    However… the perception that the HR function is staffed with mindless drones and policy wonks will persist until folks like Weiss stop perpetuating the idea.
    Certainly there are evil HR people out there, I’ve run into a few. Its as if we miss the fact that in any given group of professionals, idiots will exist.
    Groups like Recruitfest, HRevolution, and Talent Revolution have proven, if given the opportunity to get 100 or so of us in a room, in a mostly random fashion, what emerges is brilliance, talent, passion, and a desire to see great things happen in organizations. People “like us” exist everywhere.
    When the C-suite recognizes that HR isn’t bad, but hiring their old buddy with no HR experience to run the department because “anyone can do it” is what is making it bad. Or they get rid of the surly HR person who does whatever the CEO wants, even if its a bad idea, in favor of an HR Pro who understands business and will challenge the assumptions. Then the function will improve the performance of the company.
    There are times I feel like I’m a pre-sufferage woman trying to convince the ‘boys’ that I have the brains to vote, mostly because I’ve been making those important decisions from the kitchen table all along.
    The executive responsibility isn’t to “do the succession planning” or “take career development out of HR” – its to hire the right people to build effective HR functions that really work for the organization, hire the right managers that don’t slack off the basics of their management roles (like engaging ee’s, or counseling on tough issues) and hold themselves accountable to fix the problem if it needs fixing. Even when its tough, and they just want HR to do it.

    • Tammy:
      Sometimes when you get involved with the type of HR people that make up groups like HRevolution you get encouraged that things may be changing. But then I read something like what Weiss said I know that things are not changing as fast as I would like them to change. There are many good HR people who do understand business, who can be strategic, who can work backwards from a strategy to a plan, who can direct the succession planning effort. I think Weiss is correct, HR should not be deciding who goes where, that is up to the managers to do that, but HR needs to be there that there is no bias in the effort. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Succession planning is certainly an executive function. After all, we’re talking about the future leaders of an organization and an engaged executive should be involved in ensuring continued success. HR has too often allowed itself to be marginalized into the “police” or “party planner” roles. That has contributed to failed succession plans or for the planning to be done without HR’s input.
    HR professionals who have learned their industry, their business and actively partner with executives to obtain the company goals can be a vital part of a succession plan. We have to be seen as someone who understands the business, can visualize the future and execute on strategy. Those are critical HR objectives, not just for succession planning involvement, but for HR success overall. Without that knowledge/commitment/etc., HR doesn’t deserve a role in success planning. We can’t wait for it – we have to drive it.

  3. I wasn’t born into HR; engineering was my work mistress for quite a few years before crossing over to the dark side. Harbored within the R&D division where I worked was an exceptionally negative POV about HR and how it knew so very little about engineering. True or not, the sentiment was pervasive; it took an exceptionally insightful, humble, and committed person who became R&D’s first head of HR. The guy turned into my first HR mentor…
    His “solution” to combat the negative was to admit to knowing nothing about engineering and immerse himself into learning about the disciplines, people, emotions, projects, etc. “Please explain this/that to me” became his calling card; his sincerity was real and he won people over. Once he became one of us, he entered the net phase… “What if?”
    “What if we wanted to move co-ops into new employees…how would we do this in such a way that these new employees would want to stay here?” “What if we wanted to create a dual career ladder where some could remain technical and others could learn to become managers…how would we do this?”
    Can you tell me how many people in HR use this approach over the divine “beingness” of knowing “everything” about people approach? In my experience, these are the people who believe they have an innate ESP like ability to sense talent and are quite sure of their skills (I like to ask them how many personal relationships/spouses they’ve had). These folks can “read” a resume and “sense” whether someone is good…or not (to be fair, many hiring managers also have this psychic ability).
    Letting a company manage your career is a sin. People simply don’t know that they can ask someone – their manager, their HR rep, their CEO – what is would take for them to move from position Z to position A. This is one reason why succession planning can be a farce; the asking of this question is something that is typically controlled by HR. What’s borderline humorous is that in recruiting/HR we promote “informational interviews” where we encourage people to ask people about their career paths. Yet when people join companies, the asking of this question is suppressed by…someone.

    • Steve, you are correct that far too many HR people like to wow people with their ability to select talent, when in reality they are not really that successful. But you are correct in saying that many operational managers, particularly sales managers, feel they are great “readers” of people. You are correct also that people need to take an active part in managing their careers. But it is the company that provides the positions.

  4. This makes me sad, mostly because, in some organizations, it is true. To say that it is a “cardinal sin” is startling and I can see why he chose to push that button with a red-hot poker…it gets attention. However, I also see these blanket statements as part of the problem. To place an entire function into a dark, damp cell of ineptitude and claim that asking such a group to be part of a key strategic function is a “sin” and ensures failure perpetuates the idea that ALL HR functions are useless. It is like saying all accounting departments can’t think creatively, or that all sales teams are reckless, or that all marketing departments waste money and can’t do anything without a consultant. We have got to stop thinking in these generalities. All functional departments in a company have equal chances to be great or to be stagnant. Succession planning is a key strategic process of any company. If that company does not have an HR team that has value to add to that process, then shame on both the leadership AND the HR team. Our function is the one that is charged with ensuring that the humans in an organization have opportunities and tools to do the best work of their lives. It does not mean that we should be choosing mentors or designing the entire succession plan. But if the HR function has the right people in it, and the right people leading the company, then our perspective and understanding of organizational dynamics and how each business division operates and moves the company towards success is necessary for a successful succession plan. As Steve rightly said above, there is no reason why the discussions about paths and interests should end after someone is hired; they should only increase. And if the manager or executive is not having those conversations, then HR needs to remind them of THEIR JOB to manage and grow their teams. It is not our job to coach every single employee, but instead, to coach and guide managers and executives. And we can only do that effectively when we understand how every aspect of the business works. As an example, I started with a new company just 3 months ago or so and I have placed myself in workstations in the middle of the teams – and I moved around to get a sense of each of them. I spend hours learning what everyone does and how it connects to the company’s overall goals, and what their challenges are. So when the executive team and I recently discussed developing a High Potential Team program to lead into succession planning, my advice and design ideas for the plan were specific to the needs of the business functions, and connected to the overall goals of the company. I am fortunate to be in a company that understands how HR should work, and it’s a joint effort – I have to be sure I stay relevant and connected to the business, and they have to listen to people like Weiss with a grain of salt the size of a bus.

    • Richard, I think one of the key items in your comment was “then HR needs to remind them of THEIR JOB to manage and grow their team.” I agree. It is not HR responsibiilty to grow people or promote people, managers do that. But we do need to provide tools, guidance, advisement, and more to make sure that it is getting done. Thanks.

  5. A great post, Mike
    I think the statements can be true, but need not be. To the corporate disbeliever in HR, succession planning by bypassing HR will not be the best – for example, what is the succession plan for HR? – if there is a different style of HR being sought, why not move towards it now? Then HR can be trusted and the disbeliever can be a convert.
    If succession planning is entrusted to HR, it still may not be the best. It is such a critical issue that it has to be shared and constantly evolve in line with business direction and strategically built into day-to-day operation. The big bosses have to think that way and HR has the expertise to help and move the process along. HR cannot just prepare charts and generic things, it has to be part of live action in conjunction with the business leaders.
    I think Alan Weiss may be speaking from a defeatist perspective – sometimes not unlike the way HR can be untrusting of business partners’ ability to handle such things as performance management – equally illogical!
    Thanks, Mike

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