The announcement that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will step down from that position within the next 12 months has brought the often-neglected topic of succession planning to the forefront again. The attention is not yet as sharp as it was when Steve Jobs announced his medical leave from Apple, and it may not reach that level. However, it’s never too early to discuss in earnest your company’s and your department’s plans, if any, for succession in at least key positions.
If the words “succession planning” don’t appear anywhere in your organization’s processes or documentation, that’s not necessarily a negative. This type of planning, writes Sue Brooks, managing director for talent management firm Ochre House, is ready for broadening: “Currently, succession plans are focused on filling roles, but to be truly strategic we need to look at developing individuals into these new roles through talent management.” That approach isn’t surprising coming from a talent management firm, but it doesn’t mean she’s wrong. And for those with no formal succession planning process in place, I think these should be encouraging words. Considering the succession plan as part of the ongoing talent management efforts keeps the focus and energy from flagging, and covers alternate scenarios, including department reorganizations, for example, and not just leaders leaving the company.
In Microsoft’s case, which is of course unique, much of the early observations have focused on the lack of standout replacement CEO candidates remaining within the firm, which may point to a relatively weak succession planning strategy that didn’t include enough robust internal talent development, and the market strength of its stable of products, rather than on Ballmer himself. But the fact that Ballmer will be capping off his own legacy through his input on his replacement will make this fascinating to follow. At the time of Ballmer’s announcement, the Microsoft board of directors was “’committed’ to Ballmer’s transformation plan,” according to this Reuters report, but the 12-month timeline for the selection and installation of a new CEO will provide many lessons learned for the rest of us, as shareholders, investors and directors debate the best path.