What separates the Pats from the Colts is succession planning

By Kristin Schepici on February 1, 2012

What do you do when your star quarterback gets injured on the first play of the season? How do you think about planning for your CEO’s departure from your organization?

Within organizations (or sports franchises), it is imperative to have a plan in place to prepare for the expected or unexpected departure of your top talent. With a plan in place and strong candidates–internal and external–at the ready, you are planning for the future in a systematic and pragmatic manner which will enable a seamless transition in the event of a significant departure. Over the last decade, it has been relatively clear which corporations have had and still have strong succession management programs in place. Organizations like General Electric, Pepsi, Proctor & Gamble, and the New England Patriots have all had to replace their top executive (or starting quarterback) and they have all done so seamlessly without missing a beat.

In the season opener of 2008, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (Most Valuable Player in 2007) sustained a knee injury in the first quarter and missed the remainder of the season. Backup quarterback Matt Cassel who was drafted into the Patriots franchise in 2005 had never started a game in college, let alone the National Football League (NFL); however, the Patriots had Cassel learn their system so that in the event Brady was not able to play, Cassel would be ready. Cassel’s start in week two of the 2008 season was his first start in a game since high school and he led the Patriots to a win. The team finished with a good season record of 11-5. When Brady came back the following season, the Patriots were able to leverage the success of Cassel and trade him to the Kansas City Chiefs for a high-end second round pick.

“Bench strength” remains a consistent problem in most organizations–athletic or professional. Recent studies have indicated that companies reporting the greatest gains from succession planning processes have significant engagement from the CEO and other members of the leadership cadre. Lip service alone will not have a noticeable effect; rather, deep-seated belief in the notion that talent is a core and inviolate asset is central to executing stellar talent management strategy. Companies like Merck argue that a “talent mindset” must be part of the leadership culture for these practices to be effective.

Two weeks prior to the start of the 2011 NFL season, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning suffered a setback in his recovery from a May 23, 2011 neck surgery. On September 8, 2011 Manning had another surgery–a one-level cervical neck fusion with a minimum recovery time of two to three months. Instead of starting backup quarterback Curtis Painter, whom the Colts drafted in 2009, they panicked and signed 38-year-old Kerry Collins out of retirement. After that didn’t work out, they went back to starting Painter and ended up obtaining Dan Orlofski–all of whom were not equipped or prepared to handle the job. The Colts finished with a 2-14 record, the franchise’s worst season in two decades (which allowed for them to lock up the number one overall draft pick for 2012). Following the end of their 2011 season, team owner Jim Irsay fired coach Jim Caldwell. Caldwell became the Colts’ third high-profile termination in the off-season following the dismissal of team vice chairman Bill Polian, the architect of the Colts’ past “success,” and his son, Chris, the general manager. No one at that level could survive the loss of Peyton Manning.

Without a doubt, most of today’s organizations still struggle with their own succession planning, regardless of how much emphasis they claim to have on it. According to Jay Moran and Jeffrey Cohn’s article in the Business Insider, “Why Companies Are So Bad At CEO Succession Planning,” it is “not due to a lack of resources or effort. Today’s companies spend an enormous amount of time, money and effort on leadership selection and development decisions. They also recognize just how important it is to get it right. That said, most companies do a poor job at succession planning because they don’t know how to develop a process that includes accurate leadership assessment and evaluation. When the board and CEO embrace succession planning, he or she sets the tone at the top, and this attitude is contagious. Everyone starts to think of leadership development, and getting the right leader in the right job, as a critical, ongoing process.” It isn’t just about having the right candidate, it is about having the right candidate for the right scenario and that means managing multiple high-potential, progressing leaders through multiple roles and across numerous geographies. It is essential to think about talent from the view of ready now, ready in one to three years, and three to five years out from any given role. In addition, leaders need to have a grasp on where gaps exist in the development of their best people.

The leadership lesson from the New England Patriots is that they had everyone on board (management and coaches) embracing the succession planning should Brady depart or get injured. The Indianapolis Colts, on the other hand, placed their bet on one key player with no sound backup plan. The answer is clear–organizations need to understand their top talent and their readiness to progress to the next level. They need to have an eye on the up-and-coming high-potential talent and start grooming them early for key roles and responsibilities.

About the Authors:

Sarah Le Roy is VP of Talent Management at Linkage. She leads Linkage’s Talent Management practice area and oversees Linkage Executive Advisors. She is also responsible for the acquisition and development of human capital within the company. Sarah has worked with leaders at all levels across a number of industries focused on driving business results through better talent management, action driven coaching, building and driving teams, and strategic thinking. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Arts from Williams College in Religion and in Literary Studies, and an SM from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

Kristin Schepici is Marketing Campaign Manager at Linkage. She has over seven years of experience developing integrated marketing communications (IMC) and public relations campaigns. An avid social media enthusiast, she has leveraged her skills to generate brand awareness for a multitude of campaigns. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Worcester State College in Communications and a Master of Arts in IMC from Emerson College.

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