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HR practices revisited

Talent Management, Succession Planning & High Potential Development

The terms used such as ‘Talent Management’ and ‘Succession Planning’ actually say it all: here one is very clearly in a control paradigm where HR plays a kind of Stratego and sets the pawns on the organizational game board. In this article we try to summarize the consequences and propose alternatives. We ask these four questions:

  • Which talent management practices are commonly used? (High Potential Programs & Succession Planning procedures included)
  • Which “theory in use”, which deep-seated (and perhaps unconscious) principles, assumptions and values are behind it?
  • What are the consequences for the individual and the organization, for performance, flexibility and innovative power (generativity)?
  • What can you do differently and how will this benefit the ‘generative capacity’ of the organization and the ownership of all employees? And shouldn’t you name it differently and avoid the labels ‘management & planning’?

Current Practices ?

Under the heading Talent Management and Succession Planning, these are frequently occurring properties, methods or activities:

  • It is a centrally managed, formalized process usually managed by Corporate HR.
  • The process takes place in formal steps and starts with determining the ‘critical roles’ in the organization and the criteria that any successors must meet. Stereotypically it looks something like this:
  • The starting point is actually always ‘replacement planning’, in other words ‘being ready’ if someone in a critical role drops out.
  • The core is often ‘talent review’, in which a list of possible ‘contenders’ is drawn up who will be prepared to take such a ‘top job’ if it becomes vacant. This is usually done by a ‘talent review board’ and usually on the basis of the reputation, track, performance, personal experience, etc … with the person concerned and sometimes on the basis of additional information from assessment centers or other observations.
  • A development plan is then drawn up for those contenders, which can consist of training, challenging projects or jobs (in preparation for), individual coaching, foreign assignments, etc.
  • This ‘pool’ of contenders is often labeled as ‘High Potentials’ and is treated separately with regard to internal mobility, performance management, learning & development, etc …

What stands out in this planning effort :

  • The underlying basic assumption is that the future is predictable and relatively stable. Everything stands or falls with the fact whether one can predict:
  • which ‘positions’ (roles) will be strategic in the future
  • what the content of that role will be
  • when those jobs will be ‘open’
  • who will have the best chance of success in such a future job
  • when the candidate concerned will be ‘ready’ for the succession
  • whether that candidate is still available at the time of succession and (can / will) be released from his current role
  • The process is highly objectified, but in reality, ‘internal politics’ and power relations in the organization are of course also very important, as a result of which the system is often not ‘credible’ and many decisions are made that ‘short-circuit’ the system.
  • A lot of time is spent on preparing for successions, which will never happen in the end (because the job is vacant too soon or too late, because one or the other manager decides to appoint someone else anyway, because the ‘candidate’ involved is no more available because he / she has accepted another interesting internal or external offer, etc …)
  • There is very little objective information about what all that effort ultimately yields and internally the ‘quality’ of the process and the decisions is not really challenged (partly because it is top management who makes those decisions)
  • It is a kind of ‘incestuous’ system where the ‘top’ determines what kind of people can access top management. Only that produces vey little real ‘renewal’ since it mainly reïnforces the existing values.
  • The evaluation of potential is often based on ‘past performance’, but does that make sense?
  • The process is a kind of ‘copy’ of ‘stock management’ (what do we need when, and what should I do now so that it can be ‘delivered’ on time …)
  • People focus on a group of ‘privileged people’ (high potentials) and sometimes they say that they do this to ‘motivate good people’, but what message is given to all those employees who are not on ‘the list’?
  • High Potential is often defined as’ employees who are expected to achieve a job of ‘hay grade x’ before their 30th birthday, for example. This means that if a talented employee really wants to take on a position that does not meet those criteria, he is suddenly no longer ‘high potential’ and is portrayed as ‘failed’ (and also removed from the HIPO list).
  • Being on the ‘succession list’ or being in the Hipo program puts a lot of pressure on often young shoulders. Is that the best way to develop talent? And why does it have to be done so quickly?
  • The development of people is entirely determined by that ‘succession goal’, which means that many opportunities are missed to give people the chance to discover their true talents.
  • By wanting to put everything in a ‘planning’, one ignores the volatility and complexity of the organization as a system and brings rigidity into the system while to the contrary, flexibility is needed more then ever.
  • A lot of talent stays under the radar in this way, because they are active in jobs or regions where they have little visibility for the corporate ‘top’ (but perhaps contribute a lot to the organization).
  • Often there is a culture of secrecy around these processes. There is very little transparent communication (which in itself actually indicates that there is a problem with it).
  • Succession planning and Hipo programs are often regarded problematic (and rightly so), but it seems that in reality the existing practices just continue to be deployed. The alternative : a non-individualized, collective development of talent is apparently seen as too ‘ fluffy ‘and organizations seem to prefer something objective (on face value at least) and well-planned (even if that doesn’t work). It just seems like people are looking the other way. An explanation for this could be that people now have the idea as top management that they can control access to top positions themselves (which is not an espoused objective and which is highly counterproductive for the organization).
Dominant ideas on HR websites ?

Succession planning focuses on identifying and growing talent to fill business-critical positions in the future. In the face of skills shortages and a lack of confidence in leadership potential, succession planning has gained popularity, and is now carried out in both large and smaller organisations. (

Succession planning is a process by which individuals are scanned to pass on the leadership role within a company. The process ensures that business continues to operate efficiently without the presence of people who were holding key positions as they must have retired, resigned, etc. (

Source :

We found that few organizations have a clear handle on the qualities they are looking for, and even fewer can claim that those qualities can be accurately measured. In short, they don’t know if they’re choosing the right people to train as leaders – or whether that training succeeds.

The results of our survey echo those of U.S. researchers Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt, whose findings also call into question the utility of such leader-development programs. In a Harvard Business Review article in 2010, they noted that about 40 per cent of internal job moves made by “high potentials” ended in failure. (

Source :

What is the Theory in Use here ?

The theory in use is rarely so ‘readable’ in the artifacts of a process as in the case of talent management and success planning. We are miles away from ‘generativity’ and with both feet in the ‘stagnation’ and ‘containment-control paradigm’. The properties of the underlying paradigm are quite clear:

  • Predictability: the organization is seen as a reasonably ‘stable’ element, all possible data is collected, a plan is drawn up, implemented … ‘et voila’ … (not so)
  • Engeneerability: you can plan everything, you can prepare someone and that will work
  • Conservatism: If the ruling elite of an organization controls the gateway through which others enter that elite, you can expect that little innovation and diversity will emerge at the top of the organization. It strengthens the glass ceiling and makes it difficult for target groups that traditionally do not belong to the top of the organization, to enter that top.
  • Hierarchical: the higher the better … ‘success’ means … making a career, reaching the top
  • Talent is seen as ‘the potential to climb high‘ and not as something that everyone has, that everyone can develop and with which everyone can contribute to the shared ambition of the organization. Using your talent becomes synonymous with climbing the career-ladder.
  • The leadership model is very positional. There is no investment whatsoever in distributed leadership and in involving all employees in the ambition of the organization as a system. A great deal of importance is given to ‘top people’ who are then seen as those who will guide the company and shape the organizational culture (research indicates that the impact of positional leaders is much smaller than is often thought)

And what is the impact ?

There are quite a few indications that this ‘planning approach’ of talent management not only does not work and therefore does not lead to fluidly staffing ‘strategic roles’ in the organization, but that this approach also has many counterproductive consequences, both for employees and for the organization as a whole. A few specific elements:

  • The leadership culture will be ‘continued and copied’ in the image and likeness of the executives choosing their own ‘successors’
  • You make everything very dependent on a few ‘figures’ and that makes the system very vulnerable (it shouldn’t depend on the loss of the CFO or something …)
  • The system leads to ‘compliance’ with the prevailing culture because ‘going against the grain’ can seriously spoil your chances at the ‘talent review committee’
  • Employees do not develop any form of ownership over their own career choices
  • Learning and talent development is always linked to ‘higher up’, people who do not like that are implicitly (and often explicitly) dismissed as failures and inferior, which of course does not promote their motivation to contribute.

One-quarter of the highest-potential people in your company intend to jump ship within the year.

Source : Jean Martin and Conrad Schmidt., (2010)., How to Keep your Top Talent. HBR

What could you do differently?

Turn it around! Instead of thinking from ‘critical jobs’ in order to develop people for that, start from your people, all people and create a culture that develops their talent to the maximum. The jobs that are ‘critical’ today will probably no longer exist tomorrow or will have to be filled in completely differently … So don’t invest your time in ‘planning succession’, which in reality will rarely or never actually be realized. Spend your time developing talent and don’t try to ‘plan or manage’ anything. Develop people’s passion, their talent, create exciting challenges and experiences for everyone, give them a taste of other fields and activities and then there will always be people in the organization ready for new assignments, challenges, projects and also new roles … when they occur planned or unexpectedly.

A far from exhaustive list with some ideas:

  • Develop a dynamic learning and development culture in which people become enthusiastic owners of their own talent development, where they expand their horizons, participate and think along with all kinds of projects and networks and contribute to the ambition of the organization.
  • Start a dialogue with all stakeholders around the following questions:
  • How do we make room for everyone in the organization to contribute with their talent, expertise, passion and experience?
  • How do we ensure that we really learn from our experience in projects and that we share that learning with each other across the boundaries of professions, departments, regions and stakeholders?
  • How do we create learning opportunities for everyone in the organization?
  • How do we stimulate transversal cooperation across all borders
  • How do we develop the competencies and expertise as an organization to meet future challenges, in particular resilience, sustainable performance and development
  • Get everyone to think about their own talents & passion, how to use them and develop them further in function of the shared ambition in the organization.
  • Let everyone think about what it means for the organization to remain relevant in a rapidly changing and unpredictable business (and social) context
  • Develop collective ownership for talent development and encourage people to take initiatives autonomously, in consultation with each other, to trigger talent development
  • Think out of the box: talent development should not only be about ‘jobs’ or ‘levels’, you can also develop yourself in projects, by enriching your own job (through job crafting), etc … Jobs, job content, required competences , etc … are not stable and predictable … so keep your sights open and wide.

Then a completely different situation arises:

  • Everyone is involved in the process, co-created the rules of the game and there is no need for ‘suspicion’ or ‘jealousy’
  • The process is transparent, no secret lists or talent review meetings behind closed doors.
  • It’s not about ‘racing to the top’ and everyone can experience success. Success then means something different for everyone, depending on their own passion and interest.
  • This creates the opportunity to develop a culture in which people support, help, coach each other in their growth instead of competing with each other for an appointment or a vacant job.
  • It makes it possible to think about the ‘expertise and competences’ of the future (and not only those currently required in existing jobs) in function of this rapidly changing context.
  • Put people in the drivers’ seat of their own development and career and invite them to seize all kinds of new opportunities.


This is an ‘example’ presentation that you can ‘customize’ to have the conversation about how to approach talent management, succession planning and high potentials with the HR team and management and possibly take steps towards a more generative approach.

Organization Development