Succession Planning – Are You Prepared?

We expect to hear soon who has made it to the short list for the Crown Commercial Service CEO role, one of the toughest, biggest and most interesting roles in UK procurement, public or private. The selected candidate will replace Malcolm Harrison who is off to run CIPS.

Are any of his senior team, in the running, we wonder? Not Peter Lawson, who is off to enjoy his retirement. Maybe one of the others? We’ll see, but we know Odgers have been on the phone to people we wouldn’t necessarily have expected to be on their list – and have not contacted others we would have expected! I’m sure Ms Harding knows what she’s doing though.

Which all got us thinking about success planning. For a CPO / senior procurement leader, we’d suggest there are two key strands to procurement succession planning.

The first is the general development of staff who are equipped to move though the organisation and meet future needs, as far as they can be identified.  So in a large organisation, we might identify the need for 2 new senior category managers a year (based on usual staff turnover) and perhaps 5 new category managers. So how do we make sure we have enough category managers ready for promotion, and similarly enough senior buyers ready to step up to category managers?

That requires a structured approach to skills identification and development. What do senior category managers need that category managers don’t? How can we start developing those skills and providing training (or other development tools) to the appropriate cadre of people to make sure we have decent candidates when the next job comes up?

This is not always easy, but it is more straightforward than the second sort of succession planning. This gets us down to a personal level. What happens if a really key individual suddenly resigns or otherwise disappears? Harrison’s departure was pretty unexpected, and the CIPS vacancy was driven by David Noble’s sudden and very unexpected death last year. These events are by nature hard or impossible to predict.

But often it isn’t even the most senior people who are the problem – it is the manager running a really important, technically complex but perhaps not huge (in spend terms) category. She or he may be the only procurement person on that category – and if there is no-one else who has worked on it before, what do you do if they leave? Or if someone who is running a new P2P systems implementation gets a better offer?

There are no easy answers to this. Fundamentally, I would argue you have to do something to ensure there is someone who has at least some knowledge of what is going on in any critical area. You can do that by perhaps using more of a category team approach across a wider span of categories, rather than pone-man or woman band category leads.  Or you can use analysts, graduate trainees or similar in supporting roles, so they have at least a working knowledge of what is going on.

There’s also the argument around rotating staff. If you move people regularly, say every 3 years, you will build up an organisation that is more resilient, as staff will have wider experience in case of a sudden requirement. On the other hand, in complex categories it can take a couple of years for staff to become really effective, so this is a tricky balancing act.

The most important point must be simply that senior executives do need to consider succession planning. Even if there isn’t a magic solution, at least thinking about who you would miss, and what you might do about it, is a decent start to the process.

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