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Succession Planning: How A Top Talent Manager Is Future Proofing Their Company’s Mission-Critical Roles

We were lucky to host Susan E. De Bourcy, Global Head, Talent Management Strategy and Innovation at Novartis, at Zukunft Personal in Cologne, Germany.

She lifted the lid on the succession planning processes at Novartis: from the metrics they deem to be critical, to tackling challenges around employee satisfaction, retention and recruitment fill rates, to accommodating changing skills and capabilities.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that, even with all their work and effort in the space, they don’t have it all figured out yet – so take heart!

Getting started: a precision talent focus

Novartis has succession plans in place for only around 250 roles, within a company of 108,000 people. So the first lesson is to start small and focussed – stick to the most important, mission-critical roles.

Indeed, when asked whether there is pressure to include roles in areas where there is dearth of talent (within those 250), Susan said categorically no. The roles are picked based on a deep dive into what makes Novartis not just survive, but thrive. A top-down and bottom-up approach is used to determine these mission-critical roles, and then all the effort is put into planning a pipeline for them.

What is interesting is that those roles aren’t always the most senior ones in the company – but the ones where the business deems it imperative to have an employee in place to keep delivering on the outcomes needed.

They strive to have two people “on the bench” for each of the roles – some are “ready now” and some will be ready “after one or two role changes”.

Is it possible to scale this?

Yes, says Susan. She suggests businesses start thinking in terms of country or business unit-specific scaling. Once the identified mission-critical roles in either have been looked at and the succession plan is in place, it can be scaled to other similar, but theoretically less critical, roles.

The other aspect is ensuring the skill sets pertaining to these roles have been captured. One replacement or successor may have a number of the skills of the person they are replacing, but not all of them. And this is all the more pertinent in a world where cross-functional digital skills are becoming more and more the norm.

How to roll it out: with transparency and candor

In general, Susan is a huge advocate for transparency – your employees are smart enough to work out when they or their colleagues are part of a succession planning programme, so there’s no point in hiding or denying this.

In the scenarios where transparency about the succession planning leads to envy (“why you not me?”) or worse, a sense of entitlement (“it should be me”), this reveals a lot about the employee’s leadership potential and self awareness.

Typically those being earmarked for succession are high performers, and telling them so should motivate them to stay engaged and committed to the cause. Sometimes they will leave, but in the main, Novartis has found their policy leads to the best people staying and indeed providing much needed continuity to the business.

Susan also spoke about the need for training and enablement as a fundamental piece of the succession planning puzzle. Employees who recognise their shortfalls and then look for opportunities to upskill are the future leaders your business needs! And this could spurn a virtuous cycle of more and more uptake of your upskilling and reskilling programmes, as more mobility leads to more trust and engagement, and that in turn leads to more internal mobility.

Succession planning often involves mobility away from current business units and teams – won’t managers block this?


However, according to Susan, there are two key ways to tackle this:

  1. Inspire and push your managers to be people enablers and talent magnets. This is good for their career.
  2. Remind everyone that, if the talent being held back by a manager is unhappy, they will leave anyway... and no one wins in that scenario.

And when it comes to mission-critical roles, managers need to be hypersensitive to the needs of the business, ensuring that knowledge is kept in house. Good managers will see this and adhere to such principles soon enough, Susan believes.

In conclusion, Novartis doesn’t yet have a fool-proof succession planning programme in place. But the robust work they’ve done means they have a framework to prepare for the inevitable – that people will leave, and need to be replaced.