Students in Northern Kentucky University's online Master of Business Administration program examine myriad aspects of effective leadership and management. Much of this study focuses on managing and leading people because high-performing employees form the backbone of any successful organization.
For numerous reasons, organizations often lose or shift employees out of key positions. Leaving a vital position unfilled can result in hiring and training costs, poor continuity in operations, gaps in leadership and dips in productivity.
Human resources (HR) managers are tasked with preventing such negative outcomes. Accomplishing this involves having a plan to fill key roles quickly with competent people, ideally from within the organization. Seamless internal leadership development and promotion strategies are essential aspects of succession planning. The effectiveness of succession planning is highly dependent on what is commonly referred to as an organization's bench strength.
What Is Bench Strength?
The obvious analogy for the concept of bench strength is the structure of a sports team. In this context, dictionary.com defines bench strength as "the quality and number of players available to substitute during a game."
In reference to bench strength in the organizational setting, Simplicable defines bench strength as: "an organization's ability to immediately fill critical positions with a talented internal candidate."
This illustrates the connection between bench strength and succession planning. An organization's bench strength — or its pool of competent employees qualified to shift into specific leadership roles — facilitates the success of HR's succession plan. This plan, if executed well, ensures continuity in leadership, avoiding vacancies or periods of ineffective leadership while new hires are trained.
What Is Required for Adequate Bench Strength and Effective Succession Planning?
Many factors can measure an organization's bench strength. An organization needs ready, willing and competent employees to move into leadership roles in various departments. This availability of talent with diversified, developed, position-specific skills and the capacity for leadership bolsters the depth of an organization's bench strength.
Other measurements of bench strength and resiliency in succession planning are based on determining factors like:
- The volatility or turnover rate of key positions
- The rate key positions are filled with internal candidates
- The rate of potential, immediate coverage of vacated positions (or how many could be instantly filled with a qualified existing employee)
- How often internal employees are promoted versus the rate of key positions filled through external recruitment
Hence, succession planning requires quantitatively and qualitatively analyzing bench strength measures in relation to known, projected and potentially unforeseen key position vacancies. For succession planning to be effective, executives must identify and address shortfalls, risks or potential weaknesses in these measures.
How Do Organizations Develop Improved Bench Strength?
Building bench strength starts with analyzing factors like those noted above. Importantly, accurately forecasting and projecting potential key position vacancies means more than assessing what existing positions regularly need filling or common promotion patterns. Succession planning requires looking ahead, analyzing the changing nature of many key leadership positions and developing new ones.
Organization leaders must analyze the development of departments, management tiers and executive leadership roles in information and technology, data management, cybersecurity and diversity/inclusion, to name a few. Even though some developing roles may require external talent recruitment, leadership must assess the competencies, skills and leadership capacities of existing employees. Plus, internal employees should be trained, upskilled and developed, preparing them for succession to multiple potential leadership roles.
Many companies utilize strategies like implementing competency management systems and structured leadership development programs to build these components of bench strength. Companies can also contract external analysts, consultants and development professionals to guide, manage and maximize these processes.
Furthermore, fostering open, candid communication about succession opportunities and creating an organizational culture of development are vital for building bench strength. Employees at all levels should be engaged in and committed to their own diversified skill development, based on a clear understanding of advancement opportunities and succession planning processes.
Consider a tech company with a sales development representative who excels in networking, building relationships and establishing partnerships. Developing this sales rep's leadership skills could lead to creating a cross-functional leadership role, exponentially increasing that employee's motivation and positive impact on the company.
Creatively considering employee strengths and skills when making leadership position projections and restructuring decisions is essential for realizing the full potential of internal talent. In combining an analytical and creative approach to succession planning, an organization can build dynamic bench strength and ensure its leadership succeeds, whatever the future brings.
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