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Succession Planning: Coping with Organizational Enigmas

August 21, 2012


This is the fourth blog discussing the different parts of the Nine-Box Performance-Potential Matrix.  (In case you missed them, check out the first, second, and third installments.)  9-box_enigma

As the model to the right illustrates, succession planning involves mobilizing your talent pool in a north-easterly direction; that is, from the bottom-left Icebergs to the ultimate goal in the top right box. In the process of developing a healthy succession plan in your organization, you may encounter some outliers to the normal progression. These Enigmas represent individuals that are exceeding expectations along one dimension and failing along the other. Enigmas come in two forms on opposite ends of your Nine-Box: the high-performing Backbones in your organization who possess limited potential, and the Problem Children who are high potentials ("hi-pos") that aren't performing up to standard. The two should be developed in very different ways.

Help Your Backbones Reach Their Potential

You are likely familiar with your Backbones - those high-value experts that are the go-to people when there are problems. They are, at present, performing perfectly in their role. The classic mistake in management practice has been to promote these individuals thereby achieving the oft-maligned "Peter Principle" - promoting a person into a role where they perform incompetently.  Instead of risking this blunder by investing developmental dollars on an individual that you have already identified as limited in potential, consider taking the following two actions:

  1. Encourage their retention as a key asset in their present role. Watch for signs of boredom, lack of challenge and other retention risks. Provide recognition and rewards for their accomplishments. Look for ways to publicly acknowledge their efforts. Have them take the lead on presenting information or explaining processes to others (corporate presentations, participation at external conferences, etc.)

  2. Provide them with opportunities to develop in places where they can grow a deeper and broader skill set and knowledge base. Utilize their assets toward teaching or coaching others.  Look for the hidden high potential in the talent base of your Backbones. Are there undiscovered passions or interest areas that they can branch out to that will help the organization grow? Can your Backbones grow to be stars in their own roles without the need to climb the ladder to do so?

Helping Your Problem Children Grow Up

In the other corner of the Nine-Box are a set of nuts much harder to crack. The Problem Children in your organization have all the potential for greatness, yet they have failed to meet expectations. They are the rookie sensation that flops in the big leagues; the brilliant young mind that can't make it in college; the disappointing Olympian that comes home with no medals. Several action steps should be taken to address these cases.

  1. Find the root cause of the failures in performance and collaborate on a development plan to address identified deficiencies. If the issue is more about poor fit than role failure, consider moving your Problem Children to different roles in the organization. After you have taken actions to address any issues, review the assessment you did on their potential. Are your Problem Children truly "hi-pos" in your organization?

  2. Make their developmental plan contingent on performance improvement. Come to an agreement with your Problem Children on ways to match tasks and responsibilities in a manner that results in better job performance. Try including efforts to give them the technical skills they need to perform at the required level. Ensure that any investment in development only occurs after measurable improvements are made. If these employees do not respond, consider moving them to another role or out of the organization.

  3. Can you 'kill two birds with one stone' by asking a Backbone to mentor and coach your Problem Child? Explore the possibility of attaching these employees to higher performing members of your organization, and more the better if those mentors are also "hi-pos."

Investment development dollars in Enigmas should probably be more extensive than the outlay made for the Up or Outs discussed last week. Both offer tremendous opportunities for your organization if they can be directed back toward the stream of your succession plan. When that happens, you can really start to focus your development dollars on the creation of the gifted talent that will take your organization to greatness.

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Drew Brock, Ph.D.