What is the recipe for successful succession?

Kate Cooper
Head of Research, Policy and Standards
Institute of Leadership and Management
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You will only build a strong talent pipeline if you invest in it.

To support that investment, you need a culture where it’s okay to make mistakes – and where learning is an absolutely central driver of the organisation’s activities.

That whole equation is something that police forces are evidently struggling with right now.

In a report last month, standards body Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) gave forces a stern ticking off for dragging their feet on the succession beat. While the report noted that forces’ overall working cultures are improving, to the extent that they are “increasingly more open to new ways of working”, this one area emerged as rather stodgy.

As HMICFRS pointed out, “few police forces have adequate succession plans in place”. And while they’re faced with “increasingly complex crime and fast-changing demands”, too many of them “are taking a short-term and reactive approach to address future needs”.

Performance police

Her Majesty’s inspector Matt Parr, who led the scrutineering behind the report, said: “In many cases, selection processes for future leaders are not perceived as fair by the workforce. Talent is not managed properly, and not all members of the workforce have fair access to development and progression.”

He added: “All of this needs to be underpinned by better performance management of the workforce at all levels. A deeper understanding of the skills and capabilities required for modern policing will enable forces to identify and develop the right leaders.”

But is it simply a matter of focusing on the particulars of policing? 

I’m not comfortable with the term ‘soft skills’. Whoever coined such a trivialised phrase did those particular skill areas a massive disservice – for, in my view, successful organisations don’t just excel because their people have been drilled to perform a series of rote, technical tasks.

They do well because they have properly invested in the people- and communications-based sides of leadership and management.

A fair cop

It’s about paying attention to the relationships that staffers build with their co-workers, and examining how they work together. It’s about knowing how to praise employees and – where necessary - to provide constructive feedback without damaging the relationships you have with them.

One interesting recommendation that the inspectors made is that forces should continue to look for new skills externally to grease the talent pipeline.

I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of that approach. Does that mean that you, as a senior figure, want leaders at other organisations to do all the nurturing, and then you just skim the benefits off their investment?

Perhaps more importantly, how do you think that strategy is going to make your own people feel? Do you think that it’s fair to put them in a position where they’re working alongside a shining example of talent development from elsewhere, whose skill levels will only make them reflect on the investment they’re missing out on?

Get your leaders better at giving feedback. Get them better at understanding that leadership is about relationships. And underline investment as a fundamental path for creating a sustainable flow of talent that will define the future of your organisation.

You can’t just buy it in.

About Kate Cooper

About Kate Cooper

Prior to joining The Institute of Leadership & Management Kate Cooper worked in the university sector. She has appeared on, amongst others, BBC Television, BBC Radio 4 and has a regular column in Dialogue magazine. She is a key note speaker at conferences and provides expert commentary on a range of topics arising from the Institute’s research agenda. 

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