ThomasTalks podcast: Confronting the succession challenge, with Professor Adrian Furnham and Ciaran Morton

We’re HR Vendors of the Year 2017 finalists!How much is employee turnover and recruitment...

What is succession planning? Why is it important? Why should it be your priority? Can potential be tested? Does culture play a role in the process of selection?

Date: 19/10/17 | Duration: 00:21:43

In our debut podcast, Professor Adrian Furnham, world-renowned psychologist, and Ciaran Morton, UK Managing Director at Thomas International, answer these questions and provide exclusive insight into their current thinking on succession planning.

This in-depth exploration of some key principles and issues in succession planning is suitable for managers, HR professionals and succession/talent specialists.

View the full podcast transcript

Ciaran Morton: Hello, and welcome to Thomas Talks, a new series of relaxed conversations but hopefully revealing, where we meet face-to-face and discuss pertinent issues around human matters with leading academics and practitioners from the world of occupational psychology. I am delighted to be joined today by Professor Adrian Furnham, a leading academic and very prolific author. Adrian, you’ll have to let us know exactly how many later on! And a much in-demand consultant in the world of occupational psychology working, indeed, all over the world. So first of all, Adrian, hello, welcome and thank you for giving us some time.


Adrian Furnham: Thank you very much, a great pleasure.


C: Adrian, today’s topic is succession planning, not a term I particularly like – perhaps more of that later on. But I was thinking before we launch into the practicalities of succession planning, is it worth really examining the changing nature of the face of leadership for a moment?


A: I think it is. I think it’s more and more difficult to become a leader. I think the many shareholders in a company have got more demands than ever. Most leaders have to appear on the media the whole time, they are accessible more than ever before. They’ve got to be politically very savvy. They also say they have more demands from their staff. They want their leaders to be more approachable and more emotionally intelligent. Technology changes, tremendously, the economic environment. To be a successful leader now is more difficult than ever in my view.


C: I’d agree. I think that’s really interesting, that you have to be this multifaceted person. One of the interesting points made there was the changing nature of the staff.


A: Yes.


C: I’m not that old but I remember, in a way, being delighted to have a job when I first got employed, whereas now it feels like we are being interviewed by potential employees to see if they’re the right employer for them. And I think part of that is the emotional mix, the ability to intuit your position in society. It’s really changing.


A: Yes. I mean, in the old days you used to think ‘well, if the chap went to a good university, he’ll be fine, he’s usually probably bright enough’. It’s important to know that the leaders are bright enough, and I stress the word enough. But, of course, there’s emotional intelligence as well, as well as intelligence. And people would say that, you know, once you’ve gotten to a certain level of ability and you can do the job, it’s your ability to engage your staff. It’s your ability to pervade your competitors, it’s your ability to charm your customers or one sort or another. And those are really important aspects to all forms of leadership. I think most people accept the fact that you need both IQ and EQ, in other words, you need to be bright, bright enough, and you need to have emotional intelligence. Now, there’s always the question of ‘which do you need more of?’ And I have to say I come down on the side of IQ is more important than EQ.


C: I would have – well, I’ll have to disagree I think, Adrian.


A: Alright.


C: It’s an either-or, but one needs to be tempered by the other. I think you absolutely need enough IQ, but I think an absence of EQ, you don’t have the engagement, you don’t have that cultural fit, you won’t bring the people along with you.


A: I would rather have a cold, not very empathic, very clever boss, than a warm, kind, appreciative, dim boss.


C: [laughs] You’re going to extremes.


A: I am.


C: [laughs] You’re going to extremes.


A: I am.


C: I think there’s a minimum level of IQ that has to be tempered with with some EQ. I think the absolute absence of EQ – I think you might have an effective company, I think you’d have terribly high char [sic]


A: I think that’s fair dos. But people have said for a long time ‘EQ is more important than IQ’ and I think they’re wrong. I think you need minimum levels of both, well, optimal levels of both and you need to know how to measure them. Both are really important.


C: I agree. I do disagree about the fact that you would work in a company for a long time, led by an IQ-only led boss. I think that would be a fairly horrific place.


A: [laughs]


C: I think it’s that authentic leadership. I think people still want the strategic vision. I think they want the decisive decision-making, but they also want some of these more humanistic skills. The idea of not knowing everything and being more vulnerable, and being prepared to share that with staff, and revealing that nature of your character because I think that creates that greater bond, that engagement, which a lot of companies view as increasingly important to generate success.


A: I think they’re absolutely right. I think there used to be a time where the boss lived at the top of a building and was protected by the PA and you were lucky if you saw him at the Christmas party or something. And now one is expected to walk around and do a bit of MBWA, ‘Management By Walking About’, and engaging with the staff. The staff expect it and the staff should be able to expect it. You want your leader to be approachable, to be sophisticated, to be trustworthy, to have integrity. All these are things we’ve always wanted but they are much more in demand.


C: So, when you have that in place, and so you have these competencies, you have this emotional intelligence, you have this [sic] humanistic skills, and they depart – whether a planned departure or an unplanned departure. Organisations, I mean, what steps should they be taking in order to make sure they’re getting the right person to step to the next role? Is it, as you say, it can no longer be a measure of academic ability or possibly practical experience? Are there ways and means that you can test for this?


A: Well, yes. You start off by trying to be very specific about what you want. As the world changes, the job can be slightly different in the future. If so, what are the characteristics you want? Now, I think with all leadership, there are certain characteristics that everybody wants – you’re bright enough, you’re emotionally intelligent, you need a bit of competitiveness, a bit of courageousness, you need emotional stability. And what one can do, they can say these are the characteristics we want, these are the characteristics we don’t want and you can look for a series of measures that will give you a very good insight into those characteristics. Do people have enough of, sufficient or too much of a certain characteristic which relates to leadership abilities? I don’t think testing itself is enough, but I can’t imagine how people will make serious decisions without using some tests to give them some good background indication of what to investigate further.


C: No, I think that’s quite valid. We [Thomas] are an assessment company. I mean they are part of our warp and weft, and so I think we have an enormous amount of insight into our own people. We measure speed of cognition, through using GIA. We use one of your own tools, HPTI, to measure the high potential, especially some of the interesting traits you were talking about then in terms of conscientiousness. But tempering that, I want enough conscientiousness to make sure someone is going to get the job done and, actually, not too much – I mean, excessive conscientiousness could mean nothing ever gets out the door, you’re always trying to perfect it. And I think having some of these measures enables you to make better informed decision-making as part of that process or part of that evaluation.


A: Yes, absolutely. What you want is some way of getting a handle on the individual, you want to investigate them further afterwards. But I can’t imagine how you could make a serious decision about an individual in a selection situation, even a coaching situation, without using some instruments which give you an indication of the sort of people they are and the sort of people they are and what you need to follow up. I mean if you take conscientiousness as an example – work ethic, prudence, reliability, whatever you want to call it. Indeed this morning I had breakfast with somebody who’s having potential problems and her issue is around conscientiousness, that she’s OCD, she’s a perfectionist and she can’t let things go. This is giving her problems and her staff problems. And because she’s very conscientious, she’s too conscientious. So, one of the things I think many selectors never think about it is this idea of having too much of a good thing.


C: Derailers, potentially.


A: Potential derailers, yeah. So, this is another interesting area I think with the succession planning – looking for things you don’t want or look for things in extremeness. Because if people are very, very anything, if they’re very, very resilient, it might be they’re too cold, it might be that they’re unemphatic or they’re very, very risk-taking would be an interesting one. You don’t want people to be highly, extremely risk-takers, nor the others. So, you want this concept of ‘optimality’ and, of course, the tests will give you an indication of this.


C: Well, the great thing about that of course is that it makes it defensible decision-making, because in today’s litigious climate or indeed in the workplace or boardroom, when you have a number of people, all of whom are adept, all of whom obviously have competencies or they wouldn’t have risen that high, but they’re competing against each other for potentially the number 1 slot. You have to be able to have some academic rigour in defending your decision-making process.


A: Indeed, that’s the case. I think we’ve inherited this from the Americans who are particularly litigious, but the idea is that we have information, clear object information, on which we base our decisions, rather than be accused of some ‘old boy’ network or some sort of favouritism.


C: Or your golf handicap. [laugh]


A: Exactly. That’ll usually suffice. [laugh]


C: We’re talking really about the immediate selection process. If I was to wind it back and say the actual whole process of planning for succession – is this something which, in your opinion, I mean I know you’ve consulted to a huge amount of organisations around the world... Where do you think it should start? When do you think it should start? Is it identifying potential right the way from recruitment? Is it giving people tasks and identifying potential high-flyers and stretch them throughout their career in the business? What would you suggest would be good practice?


A: In the old days, we used to do succession management based on trying to fulfil particular roles. What people say these days is that there’s too much change about. In other words, this job which we have now will be quite significantly different in a few years’ time. And to find people to replace individuals in top roles for the same sort of job doesn’t seem to be as important any longer because of the change factors. So what people are doing, as you said, is looking for people with, what you might call, talent, who are able to take up a number of different roles which are good for them and good for the organisation. And that is why so many HR departments now call themselves talent management departments. That’s what they see themselves as doing.


C: I’m with you – I think it’s probably more talent planning, rather than succession planning. Succession has this sense of anointing the next king.


A: Yes.


C: Talent really is saying there’s a talent pool. How do we identify, nurture, develop and put it into different ways? I’ve noticed even in our own business that we have, which I’m delighted by, a really fantastic intake of young staff. Very talented, very able, very impatient. Six months in and they’re sort of saying ‘I’m ready for my next challenge’.

A: Ah, yes.


C: I think there’s a sense of, you used to have to serve your apprenticeship in a particular role and I think that really you can start to assess people and their potential future, in my eyes, far earlier in their career because you can, with this demand to keep changing role or adapting role, you can start assessing them on a far broader range of skills and capabilities than before.

But that does put a challenge on the organisation. I think the organisation needs to be far more agile.


A: Yes, absolutely. What used to be the case is that you say to people ‘I think these are the talented individuals’ and the talented individuals say ‘well, if we’re talented what are you going to do to us, how are you going to help us realise that potential?’


C: And if you didn’t identify people, you’ve got the other pool who are not talented who are probably going to leave!


A: Very understanding, yes.


C: It doesn’t really work out. If you identify people into two camps, one camp is definitely going to be unhappy.


A: Absolutely, but the interesting thing about the ‘talent group’ is that they have expectations of having their talents developed. If you’ve got an organisation that simply identifies talent and calls them the talent group does nothing to them or for them, they’re going to leave quite quickly. So, in that sense, they seem more demanding than they ever have been in the past, and yet if you put money into them, if you put effort into them, you will be rewarded. Someone said the other day, fascinating comment, which said [sic] ‘why should we put money, why should we develop the talented group when they’re going to leave?’ And he said in response ‘what would happen if you didn’t put money into the talent group and they stay?’ In other words, you’ve got to put effort into identifying, nurturing and developing people who can take these senior roles in the future.


C: And if you don’t, we’re going to have a huge challenge. I mean, there’s such an expectation on developing. I know from ourselves we look at stretch projects, we offer people the opportunity to go and support our increasing international network and they might not have an appreciation or the nuances of a local culture but they have some skills and knowledge from head office. And it’s that stretching, it’s that broadening of expectation and experience, it’s that sharing of knowledge around the world. They come back broader people with a greater world view which they bring back to central base.


A: Well, I tell you what I do with some of them. I say to them ‘right, you know yourself better than I do. Imagine I’m going to give you 3 months off and I’m going to give you £20,000 for this assignment. How would you choose to spend? In other words, what would you like to do?’ And, of course, one of the indicators of talent is self-awareness, and they have a self-awareness of how they can develop their talent further. So, it’s not a cheap business necessarily, but it’s an essential one.


C: That’ll be interesting to see what they come back with, whether it be training, formal leadership programmes. All of these things are available are there and it’s quite interesting to see who opts for what or what combinations. I think that, you’re right, everything is driven by the organisation centrally, and there’s no opting in by the person. I always feel that people would do better if they make their own choices as opposed to having choice thrust upon them.


A: Yes. People building houses in Africa – one of my friends was part of a crew going around Cape Horn on a yacht and he said that 3 months changed his life forever. You really know about teamwork, independence and fear, and how to cope with fear. He said that experience was better than an MBA, better than anything he could imagine. It’s made him more insightful, more empathic, more resilient etc.


C: I think that’s an interesting way to lead into, again, when you’re talking about IQ, how much can be trained and how much can be learned. We tend to think about the development of executives in a few ways. I know we’ve discussed already some stretch projects, there are formal training and how people choose that mix. There seems to be an increasing trend, especially at C-Suite level, for executive coaching. What are your thoughts on that? I heard you expand on this in other venues.


A: Yes.


C: You seem to have some interesting observations.


A: I am a sceptic.


C: A little bit counter-culture.


A: I am a sceptic. Yeah, a little bit counter-culture. I think, you know, many organisations have a coach and they’re very proud of having a coach and it’s a sign of them being senior. My question is, does coaching work? Does a coach help you, and what do they do? And, I have to say, I’m a bit of a sceptic. I have seen the very occasional executive benefit from coaching, but I’ve also seen that a lot of money can be wasted on coaching. The assumption is that anyone can be a coach and it’s very easy to find a coach. I think there are better methods – stretch assignments. I think these sort of things are personally better. It’s very difficult to find coaches can deliver.


C: I think that is my point, that I think that good coaching works, but there’s too much mediocre coaching out there.


A: Yup.


C: There is, at the C-Suite level – I think that it is a lonely place. You have to have high levels of self-awareness and you have to have a certain reflective personality in order to be able to really rigorously self-critique yourself.


A: Yes.


C: As we said earlier on, you know, IQ without EQ, I think possibly does require some coaching to reflect that decision-making and make one question oneself. But you need a good coach to do that, and then you see the benefit.


A: You need a good coach but you need one who’s right for you. And then there’s a problem with coach dependence. You know, you’re quite right, in the C-Suite it can be lonely up there. You need someone to talk to, someone to confess to. I say there are C-words; are you a coach, are you a confessor, are you a counsellor? You’re all these things. But the worry is the addiction sometimes to coaches. You’ll see executives become coach-dependent. What also worries me is that they might have been very good initially, they might have done a very good job helping you but then you become dependent on them. And that can’t be good for either the coach or the executive.


C: That sounds like a transition from a coach to becoming a therapist – possibly not a good thing in business.


A: Indeed.


C: And where do you think culture fits in? I have a tendency that I talk about culture a lot. I think we put organisations together – international distributors, we’ve brought them back into the fold. You have different cultures, different approaches. But I do think you need a certain amount of homogeneity in order to affect that standard approach towards being what you want to be and I think that culture is often overlooked. How do you think it plays a role in ensuring that your executive choice is the right choice for the business?


A: Well, there’s a difference between national culture and corporate culture. So sometimes you can work for an organisation which has a very strong corporate culture which reflects a national culture. Thinking of some of the banks I work for (and I won’t mention names for), yes – the business has a very strong corporate culture which reflects the national culture. And it’s a very strong culture, meaning you adapt to culture or else. You go to their offices around the world and they are homogenous. That can have good sides to it because it’s like going to McDonald’s – it’s the same everywhere and it’s very familiar. On the other hand, one has to adapt it to the local environment to some extent. I think culture is terribly important. When you go as a consultant to an organisation, within 10 minutes you’ve got some serious strong indication of the culture, of formality, of time consciousness, of security issues. And sometimes the cultures don’t adapt as fast as the environment around them. And that’s one of the problems for executives. And one of the things I’ve always said – if you go into an organisation and want to know about the corporate culture, you must speak to people who have been there for less than 6 months because they are still aware of it. Those who have been there the whole time think it’s normal, think it’s natural and it isn’t. And changing the culture, which is often what an executive is asked to do, is enormously problematic. You know they’d say to me, ‘can we change the culture by Christmas?’ and I always say ‘well, which Christmas?’ It’s not that simple. It takes a lot of effort, takes a lot of attempts at ensuring that people behave in particular ways. The definition of culture is the way we do things round here, it’s our normal behaviours – normal in the sense, done every day. And you can change them, you can change over time and, my god, some of these executives have to.

C: And should that be something which is again seen to try and match someone’s natural inclination toward a cultural fit? Or do you think it’s reasonable at the C-Suite level to expect people to be able to modify their own cultural expectations to align with corporate?


A: Hmm, that’s a difficult one. You often hire people for their slight quirkiness, for them doing things in a slightly odd way, which will have consequences. There are ways that one could describe cultures as being healthier than others, and I think there will be individuals who don’t fulfil those criteria, that it’s ‘do as I say, not as I do’ and that’s always a problem for management. I think inevitably managers have to model the behaviours they want and if they don’t model the behaviours they want, there will be consequences.


C: So, Adrian, it’s been fascinating talking to you by the way, and thank you for giving me some time. If I can be so bold as to put words into your mouth, but if I hear what you’re saying, what you’re really saying is that leaders are obviously important but the expectations placed upon them have increased exponentially.


A: Indeed.


C: And, therefore, as the demands on the C-Suite and the demands of leaders increase, we have to be a lot more rigorous in terms of how they’re selected. It can’t just be a one-off snapshot, we should look at multiple lenses, and that is things such as cognitive abilities, the emotional abilities as well as the capabilities they have – and then their potential to do more.


A: Yes.


C: And then overlaying that, if you like, with some of the more intangible attributes which need to be measured, such as their ability for competition, conscientiousness, their ability to deal with ambiguity, things of that ilk. So, some key takeaways would be that you need to have some quantitative measurement to have defensible decision-making. You need to have this idea that psychological characteristics can overlay work competencies and skill sets. And really, for me, the most interesting one was that in the modern workplace, that this sense of agility and moving pathways from the newest hires up, would suggest that [succession] planning should be a continuous process of investment in developing existing future leaders, right the way through the line, as opposed to just a brief moment in time – and that you can probably never plan enough.


A: I think you’ve made a perfect summary of what I’ve said.


C: Adrian Furnham, thank you very much indeed.

Did you enjoy our podcast? Do you have a question for Adrian and Ciaran on succession planning or would you like to find out more about using our Thomas tools in your organisation? Simply fill in the form below and our team of experts will be happy to help.

Our podcasts are played via the online audio sharing platform SoundCloud. You can stream each episode or download the podcasts to your computer.




Gabrielle Westhead

Gabrielle Westhead

Gabrielle, better known as Gabby, joined the Thomas family in April 2017 as the Content Executive. Outside of work, Gabby is involved in Buddhist and interfaith activities with the aim of helping make the world a more peaceful place.