Succession planning in energy: aim high in steering

When I took driver’s ed, the instructor hammered away on two things: maintain a liberal following distance, and aim high in steering­®. Keeping a good following distance is just common sense. Aiming high in steering—i.e., keeping your eyes a few kilometers ahead in highway driving and a few vehicles ahead in city driving—is a bit less obvious and intuitive. But makes a huge difference in a driver’s ability to expeditiously and safely move, on wheels, from Point A to Point B. It is the same with maintaining a highly skilled and effective workforce. And especially in the energy industry.

The horizon is where you are going. Don’t look at the line right in front of you, look at the horizon—you’ll be there sooner than you think. This is true in driving, and it’s true in succession planning. Those in positions to dedicate real resources to arriving safely and expeditiously at the horizon, should.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of similarities between driver’s ed and succession planning. Both teach good fundamentals, which, if followed in a disciplined manner, form good habits early and produce predictably excellent results. Both receive enthusiastic lip service from those who are in a position to implement their techniques. And both are routinely and regularly ignored by the very same people paying the enthusiastic lip service.

When it comes to aiming high in steering, here is what driving and succession planning have in common. Aiming high serves to incorporate near-future thinking into your current activities. In driving, you look well ahead because you’ll arrive at those distant milestones a lot sooner than you might guess. You just incorporate that assumption and trust that it is right. Because it is.

In succession planning, you are dealing of course with a longer timeframe. But time marches on. Every year, every human being becomes one year older. For older members of your workforce, that means one year closer to retirement. For younger members of the workforce, it means one year closer to being a mainstream doers and problem solvers in your organization.

The question for you, as the person in charge of ensuring that today’s youthful employee is ready to take on mainstream responsibilities when that year comes, is: am I doing everything that I can, today, to prepare this employee for that responsibility?

In organizations that practice what they preach about succession planning, whose lip service is matched with real action, actual resources go into it. My firm has a client who pays us to run research projects that have twin aims. The first aim is to invent chemical processes that turn raw materials into products that can be sold for a profit. The second is to develop competent and effective employees who can solve real world problems in production environments, which is where profits are made and lost.

The client knows there is a tension between doing the research that leads to the breakthroughs necessary to solving fundamental problems, and solving bottom-line problems in a real operating commercial chemical reactor. A good diagnostician in, say, catalysis knows, from experience with characterization techniques, how to figure out why a reactor has shut down. He or she must also know how to get it back up and running and to keep it running. This is the difference between the laboratory and operating environment, and the diagnostician gets a feel for this through experience. And that begins with conducting the painstaking work of characterizing catalysts.

This can only be done with management’s support. Our client knows that though this looks like pure research, it is necessary. As a publicly traded company, the client is obliged to justify the related expenditures to shareholders, some of whom may criticize the long road to payoff. These justifications are as necessary as the work itself if the company’s work is to pay off at all, and our client backs up their understanding with patient, regular effort. If this were not the case, I would not be writing this.

Such is the level of commitment necessary for successful succession planning. Aim high, and you will have a better idea of what is required to arrive at future milestones safely and expeditiously.

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Steve Foster
6 years ago

An “aim high” strategy would tell us that fossil fuels are a dead end. That’s why I am so angry at the Ontario Government’s decision to back gas plants, green-washed by wind turbines and solar panels at great cost.

The strategy totally ignores the long-term implications. First, there is the carbon emissions issue. As you point out regularly, gas plants emit a lot of CO2 so every extra MWH from gas increases our emissions profile. Secondly, there is the cost issue due to inefficient use of gas plants because they are charged with balancing unreliable and unpredictable wind and solar, plus the unpredictable cost of the commodity itself.

Gas is cheap now, but what are the odds it will stay this way over the long haul? NOT VERY LIKELY! I understand that “fracking” costs about $8/MMBTU to produce (2-3 x’s current prices), and the wells deplete very rapidly. I think the Ontario Government was hoodwinked by the marketing hype around this “New Era” of “Cheap Gas for Decades” thanks to the miracle of “New Technology!”. We’re going to be paying for this mistake for a long time…

robert budd
6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Foster

Couldn’t agree more Steve. If you ever wanted to see a good example of the link between the oil/gas sector and wind/solar, Ontario’s new Long Term Energy Plan is a great one. It seems unbelievably cheerful about the fact we rely on oil/gas for ¾ of our primary energy and offers no plan to change that. It goes on to say the U.S. has 100 years of NG thanks to shale technology, so no worries for Ontario. Even suggests NG is a much cheaper alternative to costlier electricity and oil for heating. HELLO??? Electricity/heat pump technology is likely 3x more favourable emissions wise and we’d have a much better balance of trade.
The plan also shows the very dramatic emissions drop as refurbished nuclear and to a smaller degree NG replaced coal, but then shows a long slow climb as wind/solar/gas replace nuclear capacity, with the goal of 50% R.E. All the while NG as an electricity generator is also growing. How is that a rational provincial strategy? No doubt both CIPK will increase and total emission too as people substitute increasingly uncompetitive electricity with fossil. Consumers Gas, Enbridge,TransCanada are all very happy with the Liberals.

6 years ago

The only reason succession planning is needed is because the world has become fragmented into many specialties. We need more generalists.

6 years ago

This article helps explain what happened to the nuclear industry, and not just the nuclear industry. The over managing and elevating the role of human resources is part of the problem. Employees need breathing space and the opportunity to work without the pressure of deadlines, budgets and quotas.

6 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

Utilities shouldn’t be throwing money at nuclear R&D as such.  Maybe some broader research organization like EPRI could do it, if governments left much room for private entities to develop nuclear reactors.  Since government regulates everything so minutely, the role falls to government… or government has the obligation to butt out.