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Choosing and cultivating future leaders is critical to practice

Article-Choosing and cultivating future leaders is critical to practice

Key iconKey Points

  • Effective succession management requires a talent mindset, according to Mr. Conger.
  • There are five rules for developing an effective succession management system, according to Mr. Conger.
  • 1. Focus on development
  • 2. Identify linchpin positions
  • 3. Make it transparent
  • 4. Measure progress regularly
  • 5. Keep it flexible

To ensure your practice's long-term health, it is critical to choose and cultivate future leaders. According to Jay A. Conger, from the London Business School and the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations, "you build the strongest leadership bench when you practice succession management — combining succession planning and leadership development in a comprehensive process for finding and grooming future leaders at all levels of your organization."

Many businesses treat leadership development very casually, says Mr. Conger. "Imagine having a week of lectures before becoming a surgeon. That is how simplistically we treat our development as leaders. Recognize that leadership is learned. Like the science of surgery, it takes time, trial and error, and study. Find the best leaders in your organization and observe what they do, ask for their advice, and learn as much as you can from them. Look outside your organization for other leadership models," he advises.

Mr. Conger notes that effective succession management requires a talent mindset. For example, practices need to make time for in-depth talent assessment, differentiate between strong and weak performers, and give challenging assignments to inexperienced managers with potential.

In general, he says there are five rules for developing an effective succession management system:
1. Focus on development
2. Identify linchpin positions
3. Make it transparent
4. Measure progress regularly
5. Keep it flexible


A succession management system must be flexible and oriented toward developmental activities. This involves more than just training. Mr. Conger recommends pairing "classroom training with real-life exposure to a variety of jobs."


Often, succession planning alone focuses on a few top leadership positions. In contrast, leadership development begins with middle management. "Succession management systems should focus intensively on linchpin positions — jobs that are essential to the long-term health of the organization. They're typically difficult to fill, they are rarely individual-contributor positions, and they usually reside in established areas of the business and those critical for the future," he explains.


Mr. Conger notes that succession planning is often "shrouded in secrecy" to avoid discouraging those who are not chosen as leaders. He believes that this strategy is a mistake. "A transparent succession management system is not just about being honest. Employees are often the best source of information about themselves and their skills and experiences. And if they know what they need to do to reach a particular rung on the ladder, they can take steps to do just that," he adds.


According to Mr. Conger, one way to test a succession management system is to determine the extent to which a practice can fill important positions with internal candidates. The practice needs to know whether "the right people are moving at the right pace into the right jobs at the right time. You also need to know who is where and which jobs they are being groomed for to avoid stretching the candidate pool too thin," he says.


Traditionally, succession planning has been somewhat rigid. In contrast, succession management requires constant refinements and adjustments. "Succession management systems are effective only when they respond to users' needs and when the tools and processes are easy to use and provide reliable and current information."

In an article published in Nursing Leadership Forum, Patrick Coonan discussed the importance of succession planning in health care practices. He notes that human capital is a practice's most valuable asset. "Leadership and human capital can often differentiate a successful organization from one that is not. In an ongoing effort to develop a strong and capable workforce, many organizations focus exclusively on hiring and training without regard for succession planning; this is a mistake," he wrote. He also explains that succession planning encourages staff members to develop increased skills and competencies.

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