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When the Great Resignation hits the C-suite

Many companies are not ready when a key leader leaves—and that poor succession planning can hurt the bottom line.

When the Great Resignation hits the C-suite
[Source photo: Erik Von Weber/Getty Images]

Career paths used to be simple: Find a job with decent advancement opportunities and climb the ladder over the next few decades. But there are so many options available to workers today, like gig work or an internal move to another team. Moreover, people aren’t motivated to remain with one employer for a long time anymore. Even when they do, it can be hard to keep track of where people are going and where they’re headed.  People are reassessing their relationship with work and what they expect from their employers. They’re less likely to stick around at organizations with poor leadership and that don’t fulfill their needs.

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This upheaval is even hitting leadership positions to the top of the ladder. Indeed, the C-suite is not immune to the Great Resignation, making corporate succession planning perhaps more important than ever.

Succession planning involves identifying and developing potential leaders who can move into business-critical roles when they become vacant. No matter what the makeup of your workforce is, whether it’s fully permanent or contingent and permanent, you still need effective leadership to define and steer the course of your organization. 

Indeed, as your workforce becomes more complex, having an effective CHRO (chief human resources officer), CIO (chief information officer) in particular, becomes more important as they lead on hybrid, remote, and contingent/permanent workforce processes. And, according to Gartner, firms with poor succession planning are hindered by a weak leadership pipeline, and grow their revenue only half as fast as more-prepared competitors. 

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Adapting to a changing workforce 

The succession planning we are called to achieve today needs to account for the many different forces shaping modern workforces. People are re-assessing their relationship with work and their expectations for business leaders have also changed. 


Related: CEOs are fed up with their jobs, too


Leaders must now have more than just business acumen, functional expertise, and strategic agility to be successful. They must also create the right conditions for psychological, physical, mental, and emotional safety to thrive, to help people grow in their roles today, and prepare them for sustainable careers in the future. Furthermore, leaders must be able and willing to clearly state their organization’s, and their personal, stances on social responsibility and human decency. 

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Embracing different people skills

Succession planning requires a different skill set than it did in the past. That’s because leadership is now as much an art as it is a science. Employees are craving investment in the human aspects of work. They want connection and purpose, not a transactional employer-employee relationship. So, it’s important that today’s succession plans consider people needs as well as business needs.

Your future C-suite leaders need to learn to create followership momentum and not just leadership strength. Leaders become great because people (lots of people) are willing to follow them. People follow individuals who they feel are authentic, care about their well-being, create psychological safety, align with their values, and hold others (and the organization) accountable to shared company values. 

Who to develop, and how to do it

Amid the Great Resignation, at least a quarter of your high potential people will likely leave before the opportunity they are being developed for actually becomes available. The latest research indicates 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in November 2021—an “all-time-high” since the record keeping began in 2000.  

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This means you must create redundancy within your organization and develop several people at the same time for each of your critical roles—especially C-Suite positions. Separately, you must also cultivate and develop external candidates for these positions by creating strong talent pipelines, fostering deep relationships outside your organization, and establishing events—coaching and development programs for pipeline candidates to engage with. 

It’s also worth considering self-selection and not just company identification as part of the succession planning process. Most organizations use a disciplined approach of evaluating people based on their performance and potential to determine who will be identified as “worthy” of being placed in the succession plan. Yet, this approach is open to bias. A more inclusive approach for identifying successors encourages employees to nominate themselves for development—by providing their own business case for why the investment is worth it. This creates a pipeline of unexpected (and otherwise hidden) talent committed to proving their success and, therefore, more likely to remain at the company. 

Alumni “high potentials” who have left your organization can also be nurtured to return in a senior role in the future. Just because they have left your organization for a new opportunity does not mean your commitment has to end. Timing, not performance or commitment, can sometimes get in the way of their realizing their career ambitions at your organization. But if you stay connected, you’ll be able to swoop in and recruit them back when the perfect role arises. 

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The role of data

Data is needed to understand the skills required for different C-suite roles, what candidates are developing, and where gaps exist (so you can provide relevant learning resources). This can be gathered from a wide range of HR and learning technologies like an ATS (applicant tracking system), learning platform, or HRIS (human resources information system). 

Having insights on what skills the people in your talent pool have, their proficiency, and the skills they’re developing, will help you pinpoint the best candidates your C-suite pipeline. This data is dynamic; it changes as the person develops. Therefore, it can be a better predictor of leadership and followership potential than traditional methods.

To ensure succession continues long after the pandemic disruption passes, we need to experiment with new approaches. Refreshing your succession planning now will help you develop strong leaders fit for the future.

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Janice Burns is the chief people officer at Degreed, a talent development and upskilling platform.


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