The England cricket squad to tour Sri Lanka from next month was announced last week. In line to fill the place of Alastair Cook, England’s leading run-scorer, at the top of the order, is a batsman untried at Test level.
We’ll have to wait and see what can be made of that opportunity, but the experience raises the interesting issue of succession planning. It wouldn’t have been the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB)’s intention, but it’s taken so long to find a partner for Cook that they now also need to find a replacement for him. Besides my interest in cricket, I’m also intrigued to see the relative merits of succession planning. It will be possible to compare the difference in outcome between bringing in someone who has shown promise at a lower level and giving them the opportunity to learn and develop alongside someone who is established and successful at that higher level themselves, versus throwing an equally promising person in at the proverbial deep end and expecting them to work it out for themselves in a potentially alien environment.
What all employers can learn from this is the fundamental importance of succession planning. Arguably the ECB’s problems date back more than 6 years, from before the retirement of Cook’s previous long-term opening partner. Seemingly, they weren’t ready for his retirement, and since then have put so much effort into trying to find the right solution to that immediate problem that they haven’t given sufficient attention to the systems needed to prevent the same lacuna arising again.
There will always be sensitivities around succession planning because you never know when the plan will need to come to fruition. There simply isn’t the resource or capacity for each business-critical post to have a number 2 waiting in line to step up and learning everything which is done in the meantime, because that person also has to do their own job and in turn manage the career aspirations of those who report to them. It can feel like putting a lot of effort into something (or someone) which could potentially deliver no benefit to the business, or which when push comes to shove (or to maintain the theme, when they finally have bat in hand) turns out not to be as good as you were hoping. But unlike the ECB, employers needs to learn from that and focus not just on the short-term ‘who next’ but also how their succession planning process could be improved for next time.