Succession planning: women in the pipeline?

Succession planning is considered necessary for every organisation from the family farm through to Fortune 500 companies. Teresa Russell talks to two organisations that operate at different ends of the spectrum. Both are doing what is within their powers (and budget) to identify, develop and retain future leaders - with a special emphasis on women

Succession planning is considered necessary for every organisation from the family farm through to Fortune 500 companies. Teresa Russell talks to two organisations that operate at different ends of the spectrum. Both are doing what is within their powers (and budget) to identify, develop and retain future leaders - with a special emphasis on women

World Vision Australia and IBM (Australiaand New Zealand) are starkly contrasting organisations, but both are investing considerable time and effort into developing leaders within their ranks – particularly women. IBM Australia is a leading supplier of information technology hardware, software and services; business consulting services; business transformation outsourcing; and IT financing in Australia. In Australia, IBM employs around 10,000 workers that generated revenues of $3.4 billion in 2006.

World Vision is Australia’s largest overseas aid and humanitarian organisation. Because its focus is directed at eliminating poverty and its causes, this not-for-profit organisation’s funding for staff initiatives is limited. It employs about 600 people in 490 FTE positions.

Workforce vs management diversity

Just over three years ago, World Vision’s then new CEO, Tim Costello, made a visible commitment to EEO issues in the organisation’s female dominated workforce. Around 70 per cent of its employees were women with a predominantly male senior management team.

Andrea Pink, World Vision’s head of people, culture and learning, is the only woman of three direct reports to the CEO. A broader executive team is responsible for the organisation’s strategy and direction, meeting weekly with the CEO. A leadership team comprising all department heads provides operational direction, including policies, procedures and key operational decisions. Cross-functional teams are now an important part of World Vision’s working philosophy.

“Our culture has changed a lot in the last four years. We had quite a hierarchical structure with eight senior managers. Silos have had to be broken down. We’ve focused on ensuring women have a voice in senior roles within the organisation. Both the executive and the leadership teams are now half male and half female,” says Pink.

Katrina Crittenden, executive talent manager at IBM, says that 34 per cent of IBM’s 10,000 employees are women – a figure that is above the industry average and also above the average for women in technical industries. Women represent 28 per cent of its total management population and 18 per cent of its executive managers. This last figure has shown marked improvement over the last three years. In 2004, there were 10 women on the executive team. Today there are 32.


Talent identification, development and succession planning are done by both organisations, but in very different ways.

IBM’s process is highly structured, well financed, has great IT support and would be characterised as “best practice” by most observers. Crittenden says that her organisation has a long and well-established global processes for succession planning, which includes a specific, high profile function within HR, that also has functional reporting into IBM Asia-Pacific.

“My primary focus is to identify and develop individuals for promotion. They must have the capability and desire for leadership within the next 12–18 months. Our succession plan supports the organisation’s career development strategy,” explains Crittenden. She works with managers to identify and place around 200 people in a talent pool, planning not just their next job, but also the likely one after that.

Crittenden has overseen two recent trends in succession planning within IBM. First there has been an improved focus on the representation of women in management. Crittenden, the HR director, a diversity leader and CEO all meet monthly to monitor metrics of women in the pipeline and review action plans and development programs for women in the executive bench. “With all the decision-makers at this meeting, it is a very efficient way to get an immediate response to any issues,” says Crittenden.

Secondly, there has been a drive to develop senior leaders with diverse experience to give them opportunities outside the country and in other regions. This initiative is best achieved at IBM through cross-unit moves. “Senior managers are now encouraged to look at candidates outside their own business units when a vacancy occurs. This supports our underlying philosophy of being one team,” she says.

Pink describes initiatives at World Vision as being “more organic, rather than structured and rigid. We do it as we work,” she says. The organisation has defined what it believes makes someone successful at a senior level and has a lot of the building blocks of talent development in place. “Our next step is to get the executive group to bring all that together and formally discuss succession planning – to regularly review the talent we have, identify any skills gaps and suggest ways to achieve development plans,” says Pink. But she concedes that her focus is more towards building talent, rather than deciding specifically who will be the next head of any department.

“We don’t have a whole cadre of GMs in waiting. There’s no fat in our organisation – in fact it’s underweight. Because of this leanness, there is often a big [skills] gap between the person in charge and the people who report to them. Also, due to the diversity of activities we undertake, it can be difficult to move specialists laterally as well,” says Pink. She says that the best learning opportunities occur at World Vision when someone is away, or by working in cross-functional teams. “We don’t have much money to spend on costly training programs, so we encourage people to ‘make learning deliberate,’ by taking personal accountability for their own learning at work,” she says. This is often achieved by learning skills from others in cross-functional teams.

When World Vision’s head of marketing and head of advocacy both went on maternity leave at the same time, they were temporarily replaced by two other women who didn’t have senior executive experience, but were ‘invited to the table’ anyway. When the department heads returned from leave, their replacements remained as part of the executive team, further improving the gender balance and providing a broader number of voices at the table.

Attracting, retaining and promoting women

Although World Vision has a miniscule budget compared to IBM’s, both organisations recognise that the start of any good succession plan begins with attracting, retaining and developing appropriate talent.

Both IBM and World Vision have received awards for having female-friendly workplaces. Their individual initiatives make for jealous reading by women (with children) working in less sympathetic organisations (see box). In the last two years, World Vision has been able to increase the return rate from maternity leave from 27 per cent up to 69 per cent.

Core to both organisations’ awards has been providing flexible working hours, a working from home policy and part-time and job-share options –even at a high level.

Being part-time at IBM did not stop two women on Crittenden’s executive bench from being promoted to a shared position as deal hub manager – a role that helps put together very large proposals. The two candidates put forward the business case for the job-share arrangement and were successful. “It has made them mentors for other females working part-time,” admits Crittenden.

A few years ago, two senior roles at World Vision became available. Management identified a woman working in each area who had potential, but without the full experience required for the role. Rather than recruiting externally, these women were promoted and supported to develop in the areas they required.

It must be stressed that each organisation also has had strong support from the CEO and senior management teams.

Cost effective

“Don’t underestimate the power of succession planning,” advises Crittenden. “It gives managers the peace of mind to let people go elsewhere [within the organisation] and to fill the pipeline at all levels. It’s also a very cost effective way to manage multiple leadership changes without having to make temporary arrangements until a permanent replacement can be found,” she says.

Retaining women at World Vision

HR facilitated focus groups to identify what was important to its female employees

• Introduction of core hours – flexible start and finish times

• Option of 48/52 to allow access to eight weeks leave per year

• Working from home policy

• Part-time and job-share options available

• Fully equipped parenting room for when childcare is not available

• ‘Keep in Touch’ program for staff on parental leave

• 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

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