HR Indaba Conversation reveals the role of communication in successful succession planning

How to create meaningful connections in times of change, and why decisions should be supported by data.

Chairperson of the audit and risk committee at Libstar Holdings, Anneke Andrews, hosted a lively and thought-provoking session at the HR Indaba Conversations that featured panellists Eswhin Booysen, CHRO at In2Food, Sarah Rice, chief people officer at Skynamo, and Lebogang Chaka, Accenture’s principal director of strategy, talent and organisation.

The experts did a deep dive into cracking the successful succession planning code, which has become increasingly challenging for many HR leaders, especially in a world that lacks any semblance of certainty. Yet successful succession planning mainly comes down to two things: talking, and facts.

Change is constant, but communication is key
Sarah pointed out that running long-term succession plans has become impossible.

“There’s no fixed roadmap, just milestones and a constant awareness of the business environment,” said Sarah. “But if HR leaders create a culture of openness, so that employees can talk about what makes them happy and where they see themselves down the line, we can support them much better in their journey.”

From breakout rooms to the plenary session, the importance of open communication came up repeatedly. Sarah illustrated this by sharing an experience involving her tech company, which has undergone a massive restructure over the past 18 months due to it doubling in size.

“One of our key managers just resigned, as his succession path was no longer there,” explained Sarah. “That’s a communication error; we didn’t talk about competencies or next steps. Humans make plans, and if they don’t work out, there can be devastation.”

She added that, because we live in such uncertain times, HR leaders need to be “a lot looser” when talking about career paths, because nothing is set in stone. But again, it comes down to communication.

Eswhin added that, with communication, some succession candidates might be open to lateral instead of hierarchical opportunities within the organisation.

“It’s about defining what the competencies are and matching those to functional roles, with a sense of flexibility in what opportunities are available,” said Eswhin. “It’s about bringing together the needs of the individual and the organisation, but there must be clarity from the start.”

Lebogang echoed these sentiments, and added that HR leaders need to also look at how they entrench the idea of change as normal.
“In these ambiguous times, it’s important that we upskill everyone to be more agile to deal with change – not just the leaders,” said Lebogang.

“Change management should be implemented across the organisation to prepare employees at all levels, whether that’s for different roles or changing business models.”

HR leaders: you can hide behind facts
Lebogang shared how AI can play a pivotal role in succession planning, helping HR leaders take themselves out of the equation to eliminate bias and internal company politics. “With analytics and data, you can hide behind facts and be objective,” she said.

“Using tools like AI, we can look at factors like behaviour, skills, and talent profiles, then combine these factors with business objectives like diversity points; we then use analytics to pull the insights to reveal any gaps. This process can highlight biases too.”

“Succession planning is expensive,” added Lebogang. “As HR leaders we can just highlight the issues; it’s up to the business to decide. But it helps to make decisions based on facts.”

Eswhin agreed that using data backs up HR processes like succession planning. He pointed out that while smaller businesses don’t have access to resources like AI, there are other ways to find facts.

“We might just have a spreadsheet. But we can also look at practical nuggets of data like absentee and retention rates; the more we understand the needs of the business and its people at all levels, the more we can align those needs to succession planning objectives.”

Meaningful connections through avatars
In a remote work environment communication is a challenge, yet it’s pivotal for succession planning. We’re more isolated than ever, so, how do HR leaders create meaningful connections in their succession planning processes?

Lebogang pointed out that when AI first emerged, everyone thought that machines would take over, but this is not the case. “Communication is still happening, from virtual town halls to one-on-one video meetings,” explains Lebogang. And this can be taken to a whole new level thanks to technology.

“My company created a virtual world, called 1 Accenture Park. Employees have avatars, based on their personality. It’s about finding moments to connect; before any meeting we also have a ‘meet your host’ slide, where employees are encouraged to share personal information about their family, or what they’ve been up to.”

“It’s so important that we bring in the human element to communication, and use tech as the enabler,” she said.

Sarah added that HR leaders need to connect as people, not just roles. “At my company, employees connect through online games as there is a strong playing culture. It makes us feel like we’re not just an email address or Slack handle.”

After a fascinating session, participants and the panel agreed that clear expectation management, as well as decisions supported by data, are both critical to cracking the successful succession planning code. And communication underpins it all.

“Succession planning is about alignment and communication,” concluded Sarah. “We just have to keep talking.”

In the chat
Kyle Black, Mercer: “Succession planning as an isolated exercise has its place. The maturity of L&D in parallel with succession planning, and the accessibility of learning and training of skills to all employees will add value to the success of the planning exercise.”

Qaanitah Atkins, Falke: “Transparency is key to any succession planning process. As life and organisations change, plans change and that is why it is crucial to have those constant discussions with the individuals, because otherwise it is just a paper exercise.”