Prepare for the unexpected: The secret to strategic succession planning

An effective succession plan can help you reduce the impact of shock departures while also boosting team morale. But it turns out there’s much more to planning for the future than promoting your best salesperson…

October 30, 2019

An effective succession plan can help you reduce the impact of shock departures while also boosting team morale. But it turns out there’s much more to planning for the future than promoting your best salesperson…

‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ Poet Robert Burns understood a fundamental truth: detailed planning doesn’t necessarily guarantee success.

Take your annual commercial forecast: you’ve crunched the numbers, scoped out hot prospects, analysed market trends and spent hours thinking through contingencies. Then, at the eleventh hour, an unexpected resignation throws everything off course and forces you to start over.

But what about the dangers of not having a plan in the first place? Imagine the scenario: your best salesperson is poached by a rival. They’re the only guy or girl on your team with a strong relationship with your most important account.

The client, hearing the news, has a wobble: they don’t want to deal with anyone else but your star seller. Before you know it, they’re high-tailing it to your closest competitor – taking their generous budgets with them.

Disasters of this kind can be avoided with an effective succession planning strategy – the process of identifying and nurturing the sales leaders of the future. But how do you go about it? We asked the experts for their top five succession planning tips…

1.    Ensure key customers aren’t reliant on one person.

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Mark Savinson, chief operating officer, Strategy to Revenue, says that if there’s a possibility of a customer reacting badly to change in personnel, make sure you have a process in place that means they’re never reliant on one person.

Common sense? Maybe, but companies aren’t always prepared to continue as normal if a key figure leaves. According to Deloitte, 86% of business leaders believe succession planning is an ‘urgent’ or ‘important’ priority, but only 14% believe they do it well.

Avoid scenarios where key customers only develop a strong relationship with one seller. That not only makes you vulnerable if they move on but it’s a missed opportunity for development of the wider team.

Asking ‘what if’ questions can help identify scenarios that might leave you in a tight spot. What if a sales leader leaves? What if we create a new leadership position? What if promoting someone doesn’t work out? In many cases, recruitment isn’t thought through at all, says Sean McPheat, managing director, MTD Training. “Many recruitment processes are rushed because of impending need. This often results in a bad hire or poor promotion.”

2.    Be prepared and have a clear strategy for developing your people.

Succession planning is all about “readiness” McPheat says. “The business needs a clearly defined strategy for harnessing talent within the organisation. As roles become available, there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction to get someone in as quickly as possible: sales shouldn’t be impacted – you need to get back to business-as-usual quickly.”

So plan early. Have conversations with everyone in your team about their aspirations and ambitions. What do they see themselves doing in a few years’ time? What are their development or training needs? Do they feel fulfilled or are there gaps for improvement?

3.    Don’t assume that a great salesperson will make a great sales manager.

Succession planning doesn’t mean picking your best and brightest salesperson and assuming they have what it takes to step up to a sales manager or director role. “The capabilities of a high performing salesperson are very different to the capabilities of a high performing sales manager,” says Savinson.

The end result of such a strategy can be catastrophic: not only the loss of the revenue generated by your star seller, but a poorly-managed, disgruntled sales team to boot. “Salespeople with great career histories who always hit their numbers often don’t make great managers of teams,” points out Paul Lewis, global social marketing manager and social selling lead at Pitney Bowes, and a LinkedIn Sales Navigator user.

By contrast, McPheat says he has seen average salespeople go on to become brilliant sales managers or directors. “A sales leader isn’t someone who just keeps score and is besotted with the numbers,” he explains. “Instead, they have an innate ability to understand everything that sits behind the numbers to pinpoint how to develop and support their team.”

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“Remember that Tiger Woods’ coach isn’t a better golfer than Tiger Woods,” he adds. “He doesn’t need to be. And the same can be said when it comes to sales managers and leaders.”

4.    Have an in-depth understanding of the role you’re recruiting for.

Most companies fail at succession planning because they don’t define roles in enough detail and recruit with just a job title in mind, Savinson says. For him, the key is understanding what the role involves – and the essential capabilities it requires – from the start: “A good sales manager should spend 50% of their time coaching, and that’s something that may not interest your top salesperson if he or she is just motivated by closing deals.”

The capabilities required by salespeople are changing rapidly with the increasing use of digital technology, adds Lewis. As a result, skills like cold calling may become less important than familiarity with social media and digital platforms like LinkedIn Sales Navigator.

Put skills and behavioural development plans in place to help employees make the transition to sales leader, McPheat says. Ask them to mentor others or coach on a part-time basis. He advises noting down instances where salespeople demonstrate leadership potential, and running personality and psychometric tests on individuals who express interest in managerial roles.

And softer managerial qualities are just as important as commercial acumen. As McPheat says: “We’ve all seen toxic sales cultures that are ruled with the stick and are so intense that everybody fears failure. You’re responsible for creating the kind of environment in which all your salespeople can thrive.”

5.    Use your succession planning strategy to keep your team motivated.

As well as the more obvious continuity benefits, succession planning has the added draw of motivating your sales team. Savinson points out that individuals need to know there’s a path set out for their development. “Give them a vision for the future, rather than risking them leaving – and you panicking.”

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This motivational aspect can’t be understated: 62% of employees say they’d be significantly more engaged at work if their company had a personal development plan in place, with the figure rising to 90% for younger workers.

So, if the unexpected does occur, good succession planning will help create an environment that nurtures and motivates staff, and ensures the business isn’t exposed in the short- or long-term. Yes, your best laid plans could go awry – but having a plan in the first place is a great way of making your business as bomb-proof as possible.

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