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.
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.