Succession Planning: Thorny Problem For PR Managers That’s Getting Worse


In the song "Love Minus Zero/No Limit," troubadour Bob Dylan sings: "She knows there's no success like failure/And that failure's no success at all." The stanza could be the soundtrack for succession planning among communications executives. Showing top management that you are not indispensable -- and that someone can immediately step in to fill your [PR] shoes should something unexpected happen -- is one way of gaining influence with the C-suite. That requires managers to keep their egos in check, and allow their subordinates to show their stuff in a managerial setting. By the same token, communication executives set themselves up for failure if they continue to run in place and don't allow any of their subordinates to adopt their skill sets. It's an extremely fine line that many PR execs have a difficult time navigating. At a micro level, the difficulties make for inconsistent succession planning. On a macro level, however, the situation is a lot more threatening to corporations because of aging baby boomers, some of whom have already started to retire. William J. Rothwell, a professor in charge of workforce education and development at Penn State University and author of "Effective Succession Planning" (2000, Amacom), says succession planning for the long-term is a "brewing crisis" throughout corporate America, and communications executives are no exception. By 2012 the majority of the U.S. population will be at or near retirement age, according to Rothwell. "If you're not going to grow talent internally, the company is at the mercy of outside labor markets and for that I say, Good Luck." In the years ahead, communication managers could have a tough task grooming their successors because, well, there may not be many of them left. Middle managers - ostensibly the replacements for senior managers -- bore the brunt of the downsizing craze in the late 1990s. At Fortune 500 companies, one out of every five executives is now eligible for retirement. Of course, there's little communication executives can do to alter U.S. demographic trends, and the onrushing wave of retirees. Still, there are several ways to make succession planning as smooth as possible and brace for the future. "The first questions for a VP of PR is, 'If you walk outside this door and get hit by a bus, who is taking over?' If your plane crashes on your next trip what are we going to do about communications?'" Rothwell says. PR managers "need to develop a number of people who are qualified" to step up to the plate. But with so many middle managers having been laid off in the last few years, the labor pool for succession is getting quite shallow. And PR directors are splashing around looking for solutions. "The biggest problem in succession is assuming that high performance in one job means success in another," says Katrina Dewar, CEO of ePredix, a Minneapolis-based firm that has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to help them predict which employees have the best chance of succeeding in the company before they are hired. "A good A.E. doesn't necessarily have the potential to make a good senior PR director. What managers need to do is try and extrapolate the person's overall potential for succession: does (s)he have good interpersonal skills? Leadership qualities? Can they think strategically? And all of it has to be statistically measured." Yet, a lot of what passes for succession planning these days tends to be half-baked, as companies slough off systematic efforts to ensure proper succession planning. The impact of getting it wrong at the corporate communications level is huge because the chieftains upstairs rely on communication managers for a consistent corporate message -- regardless of who is steering the conversation. To get a leg up on succession, PR managers almost have to play politician. "Most people operate by influence and patronage, which doesn't mean a lot of direct power," says Adrian Savage, president of PNA Inc., which provides Web-based data collection and analysis that helps clients improve the effectiveness of their organizations. "PR managers have to align the people below them so everyone is pulling in the same direction. Appointing people is easy, getting them into the job is much more demanding." The numbers help to tell the story. According to Savage, around 20% of successors succeed in their new jobs while another 20% "are rapid, catastrophic failures" who have to be replaced within six months. The remaining 60% falls somewhere in between the two zones. "Managers are focusing too much on individuals and not enough on what the position entails," Savage says, adding that potential successors have to be viewed vis-a-vis the rest of the enterprise and the various business silos PR managers have to work with. A big part of the problem is the "Like Me" syndrome that many PR managers suffer from, to varying degrees. In "Like Me" cases, managers end up picking successors who have similar dispositions to them --- they both went to the same school and share the same handicap on the links -- and not necessarily the chops to take on added communications responsibilities. Another pitfall: a phobia among some mangers to hire people who they know to be smarter than they are. Curt Kundred, a senior partner and general manager in the San Francisco office of Fleishman-Hillard, says managers will be "stuck in the mud" if they create an environment where they are the only one who can succeed. "Letting go is the hardest thing to do in a succession plan. You have to have the self-confidence that you can make someone else successful," he says. "From the moment you take on added responsibilities you have to have an internal successor in mind so if you were to suddenly leave someone could take on the job and not miss a beat." Kundred adds: "If you're the one saying, 'I'm the only one who can bring [PR] value to the table,' you'll never move on to the next level." Your Succession Plan Started 10 Minutes Ago: Preparing for the Mass Baby Boom Exodus In the coming years, the American work force will experience the most significant shortage in the nation's history, as baby boomers prepare to retire in massive numbers. The General Accounting Office (GAO) predicts that one out of every six workers in the United States will be more than 55-years-old by 2008. ePredix, a Minneapolis-based company that has helped more than half of the Fortune 500 companies scientifically predict which employees will create the greatest return on investment before they are hired, promoted or developed, offers these suggestions for succession management: Form a team and plan now. Identifying and developing future top executives is an investment and process that should be made over years, not months. Form a team now that includes your human resources department, executive board and the communications department. Work together to create a long-term plan for selecting and developing candidates. Then continue to collaborate through the selection process and beyond. Look first within. For example, when seeking a successor for a VP of communications, consider the managers and directors who have worked for your company for years. Their holistic knowledge of your organization is of great value. Identify leadership traits, not just tactical success. An account executive who is an ace in media relations may not necessarily have the interpersonal skills to be an effective group leader. Likewise, a group leader who excels at motivating a team may not be successful as a VP who needs to forecast budgets, retain staff, interact with the CEO, etc. Leadership-focused assessment tests can identify these traits. Cast a wide net. Consider multiple candidates for succeeding a key position. As you continuously assess, train and develop these individuals over the years, you'll be able to scientifically identify the one candidate who rises to the surface as the ideal person for the position. Develop comprehensive training. Once the candidate has been selected, continue to develop and train the individual -- not just for the public relations function but likewise for skills related to leadership, motivation, interpersonal skills, etc. Source: ePredix Contacts: Katrina Dewar, 612.843.1061, katrina.dewar@epredix.com; Curt Kundred, 415.318.4070; kundredc@fleishman.com; William J. Rothwell, 814.234.6888, wjr9@psu.edu; Adrian Savage, 520.544.8185, adriansavage@comcast.net

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