Wednesday, January 27, 2021Canada's Leading Online Business Magazine

Succession Planning: A Scientific Approach for Winning the Talent War


The phrase “succession planning” means many different things to many different people.  For some it is a confusing gray area that evokes a twinge of fear, for others it conjures images of long, tedious performance reviews and strategy meetings, but for most it is a luxury that falls in the “it would be nice to do if we had the time” category. 

In the fast-paced, often reactionary, corporate world of today – where most don’t even read all the emails they get every day – few have the time, resources or know-how to tackle this critical issue.  But critical it is.  As the baby-boomers continue to retire and the available talent pool trends further downward, the war to compete for talent will escalate.  More and more organizations will find themselves without qualified people to fill their key roles unless they proactively engage in effective succession planning strategies.

Succession planning can range from promotion based on seniority, on the one end, to full blown talent pool analysis on the other.  Those who promote simply on seniority – and here lets include those who think they’ve done their bit by providing technical training to the next-in-line – often do it based on corporate culture, but just as often they do it out of ignorance.  The ignorance can come in at least two forms.  On the one hand you have a failure to understand the potential negative impact of promoting the wrong person, and on the other you have the angst of not knowing how to proceed.

Succession planning can be very complicated and involved, and yet modern advances in the field of psychometric assessments have created the ability to identify potential candidates and develop their specific areas of need using scientifically robust methods that are less expensive than you might think.

Psychometrics is the branch of science that seeks to quantify the elements of human personality.  The business application of this deals primarily with the subconscious factors that affect job performance.  These factors fall into three main categories, behavioural style, motivational drivers and cognitive competencies.  By measuring each of these using properly validated assessments, employers can identify candidates who are wired for promotion, and the specific areas for improvement that each candidate has.  The result of this process is the ability to develop a very specific program that is tailored to the unique developmental needs of the individual in order to prepare them for the requirements and responsibilities of the next level.

But let’s step back for just a second and put this in its proper perspective.  The only way to truly know how well an individual is wired for the next job up the corporate ladder is to first get a clear picture of what that job looks like in psychometric terms.  That is to say, we need to identify up front the behavioural, motivational and cognitive profiles of the job, before we start evaluating candidates.  It’s that old adage, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up where you’re headed.” 

It is only by profiling the job first that we have a valid standard against which to compare individual people.  In the same way that people have personality profiles, so too each job will have a profile; and this profile will be determined partly by the nature of the job itself and partly by the culture within which the job exists.

Psychometric assessments move us into a whole new realm of sophistication; a realm in which the subjectivity of performance appraisals, and the pitfalls of office politics simply do not exist.

Behavioural Styles

There are many different ways to measure behaviours today.  Everything from DISC to the Big Five to MBTI to McQuaig (etc., etc., etc.) can be used to determine the types of behaviours that are best suited for successful execution of the work.  A word of caution here, however; behaviours alone are not enough for proper evaluation.  Don’t get caught trying to “skimp on the pate” with this one.  A behavioural assessment on its own will not tell you enough to plan properly for succession.

For example, if you are looking to promote someone to Manager, Financial Reporting there will be certain obvious characteristics to look for.  Detail focused, compliant to rules, methodical, etc. will be among them, but depending upon the responsibilities and the culture you might also want someone who is driving, aggressive, sceptical etc. (or not, but this must all be determined ahead of time).


When benchmarking a job for motivators you are really asking, “If the job could speak what would it tell us about its motivational core?”  For our Manager, Financial Reporting example we might want someone whose primary driver is Theoretical.  People with a theoretical bent tend to like to research, and learn.

They strive to be an expert in their chosen field.  In addition you might want someone whose need to be in charge also brings with it a sense that “the buck stops here” and one who highly values both Return on Investment and acting within a consistent set of rules and principles.  These are traits that might be critical for the role, but are often hard to see in people without the aid of proper assessments.

Cognitive Competencies

Core Cognitive Competencies (or Attributes) are elements of thinking structure that relate to subconscious decision making.  They are talents (and non-talents) that affect every small action, reaction and decision we make each minute of each day.  These attributes determine how well we can understand the feelings of others, how good we are at recognizing problems and their solutions, our capacity for schematic thinking; in short, they colour and inform all of our thinking abilities, our worldview and self-concept.  Cognitive Competencies are not related to IQ, but they are the substance of our thought biases, preferences and leanings.

Taking on the Challenge

By taking the time to profile the job in terms of the psychometric factors discussed above, hiring managers and HR professionals can compare succession candidates against the job profile and then plan specific and customized development programmes that will properly prepare their talent pool for taking the next corporate step.  Not only does this approach de-mystify the work of succession planning, but it also brings the objective and impartial science of psychometrics to a task that previously had been largely subjective and preferential.

How would your organization benefit from knowing exactly what the job requires and exactly how the top candidates measure up?  What would change for you if your gap analysis showed precisely what to work on over the next three years to get Bob ready for that promotion when Judy retires? Psychometrics can solve the succession planning conundrum and can put you on the fast track to successful talent development.  Those who “get it” will win the talent war of the new millennium.

Mark Burden is a Certified Behavioural Analyst and Business Coach specializing in talent selection and development.  Certified in several profiling instruments, Mark works as a consultant in both the public and private sectors advising on job-talent alignment, employee engagement and performance.