Publish date: 23 September 2022
Travis Schultz

Whilst quietly acknowledging HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s recent passing and her remarkable life well-lived, the end of an era got me thinking, once again, about the difficult issue of succession planning. 

Now more than ever before, my colleagues and I find ourselves in a space where we are planning for the transfer of equity within our practice and designing a team structure for mission-critical roles and future growth. 

The British monarchy has a rigid set of rules, perhaps archaic, but nonetheless, a very clear and well-understood structure and lineage for succession. It works. So why is it that those of us running professional services firms seldom do likewise? Why is it that we meticulously draft and craft documents to record strategic and business plans yet fly by the seat of our proverbial pants when it comes to succession planning?

Because — unlike a royal family where the team’s destiny is largely predetermined from birth — in the business world, change is a fact of life. And sometimes it’s quick and unexpected. Key personnel leave, move on, retire or have to give up work; equity holders become ill or develop other priorities. And talented up-and-comers demand a pathway to their own career aspirations which, unmet, will likely see them leave the organisation.

Planning for the retirement of a baby boomer is relatively easy to manage; the organisation generally has some insight into and advance notice of the likelihood of a departure. But in professional services firms, it’s not just the partner and CEO roles that are ‘mission critical’ – ever tried to run a firm without your experienced finance, marketing, HR, IT or legal support team? We’re in the middle of a major skills shortage which means that it can be very difficult to replace a key team member.

So, indulge me a few observations for successful human capital planning, based of nearly three decades of mistakes and learning:

  1. Check in with the team members regularly, understand their plans and aspirations and be genuine in your attempts to enable them to succeed (and don’t forget the quiet achievers, who may be less likely to make their needs known)
  2. Prepare a matrix of roles and skills needed and then document your plan – just as you would for a business or strategic plan (and make sure it aligns to your vision and structural capacity)
  3. Create a culture that makes you the envy of the profession, or you’ll struggle to retain and attract the right people (if the profession knows you’re have a toxic workplace , good luck recruiting!)
  4. Remain agile – the plan needs to be dynamic as you can only control the controllables (there’s no such thing as lock and load’ with organisational planning)
  5. Be transparent, open and honest with the team, even if it means you might lose a great performer – trust at all levels is the glue that holds your plan together (if you have a reputation for being disingenuous or dishonest, you’ll struggle to attract the top talent)
  6. Leadership roles are obviously important; but anticipatory workforce planning is required at all levels, so don’t ignore the early-career peeps, or you’ll lose the champions of tomorrow (respect and recognise the importance of the entire team or your culture will suffer from the ‘us and them’ mentality)
  7. High performers on their current role metrics won’t necessarily make great leaders – so make sure you’re promoting people into leadership roles who really do have the skillset that a leadership gig requires (promoting the highest revenue generators is a sure way to give the impression that the organisation only cares about money).
  8. Keep the two-way communication going and listen to understand, rather than assume you already know what’s important to them and their career (if they all feel valued and important, you’ll build trust and they’ll be honest with you too)
  9. And, just in case, always ensure key roles have a ‘shadow’ who can step in if the incumbent unexpectedly leaves or can’t work (risk management 101 says that one person should never hold all the keys).

The monarchy leaves no space for equivocation, no room to waver. The moment the Queen died was the moment Charles became the King of England (and Australia). There was no moment to consider whether someone else might be more appropriate for the role or whether the country still wanted to be part of the tradition. Rules-based succession (or ascension) plans have their place, however in the post-Covid world, professional service firms need to plan for the certainty of change, and changing certainty. The trusted and agile organisations with a culture of openness and honesty I suspect will fare best in retaining and developing their future stars and in recruiting to fill gaps for the future.

As published in Lawyers Weekly & My Weekly Preview 

Travis Schultz
Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
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