Can strategic leadership development (AKA succession planning) really be tackled with one page? Marc Effron in his book One Page Talent Management suggests that all talent management processes should be lean, easy to use and add value. I offer proof that a one page approach to succession planning can deliver great results. Here’s my story.
The Setting . . .
It’s the late 1970’s. Lou Gerstner takes over as first head of Amex Travel Related Services. He’s not happy with the succession planning process. There are replacement charts and data on hi potentials galore but little real insight into leaders. There are no substantive strategies for learning from experience, little impact on retaining talent and the process is driven more by HR than presidents of the four businesses. He challenges business and HR leaders to make a break-through and share it with him in two months.
Confession One: I was nervous
Three divisions were big and had money for consultants. I was head of HR for the 4th, the Travelers Cheque business. My boss Mike, the president, liked things simple, direct, actionable and he did not believe in hiring consultants to do my job. These constraints forced me to be creative and take a very different path. One that led us to a one page solution. The page had 3 columns:
- on the left, names and titles of top two levels of leaders;
- in the middle column, a few notes on the pattern of their careers (breadth versus depth);
- on the right, actions for 3 leaders to broaden their skills through experience. For example, move head of advertising to newly created general manager job in the UK.
Of course, we had discussed leaders in depth to support the information on the page and were well prepared to discuss it, including:
- verifiable strengths based on results;
- unique leadership style;
- career trajectories; and
- evidence of who had demonstrated they could learn fast from experience.
Confession 2: I thought this was a big risk. But maybe not . . .
I knew others were meeting Lou with fancy binders and presentations. Mike and I had our 1 page and the well thought through story behind it. I didn’t think I would get fired. Worst case was the prospect that my reputation would be in tatters and my upwardly mobile career would tank.
However, I had a premonition we just might be on the right track. I had observed that Gerstner found lengthy presentations a waste of time and expected people to get to conclusions and actions and be prepared to talk about the data and analysis to support them. We took the risk and instead of blowing up my career, Gerstner was blown away by the approach. It led to me being named SVP HR in charge of what we now call Talent Management. My goal: to design the most simple and effective process that he would take 100% accountability to make happen.
Confession 3: I thought this was just a “starter” process
The approach worked well. We framed it as management planning NOT succession planning because we discussed and planned for all leaders, not just high potentials. Gerstner held me to the standard—“just enough structure and not one ounce more”. The process was very sleek. Leaders need only fill out one page of information but be ready to engage in intelligent, honest discussion based on deep thinking and assessment of their staff. We did not rely on extra assessment tools or competency modeling. The central focus was what people did to get results and on learning to lead from experience with training a footnote, not the main story line.
In later years I thought that the new tools (360 degree assessments, competency models, expensive training programs) would vastly improve the approach. I now confess that I have come full circle. I see too many overbuilt, under-performing processes that do not keep leaders in the driver’s seat.
Call to action
Simplify your approach, improve the skills of your leaders to run it versus over-relying too much on add-on tools, focus on learning to lead from experience and keep leaders on point to get actionable results.