Game of Thrones Perfectly Demonstrates Why Diversity Must Reign in Succession Planning
SPOILER ALERT: This article is about diversity in succession planning, but it relies heavily on references from Game of Thrones through Season 8.
Who would have thought that America’s favorite fantasy series featuring dragons, magic, and an army of the dead could trigger conversations about hot topics happening in the real world? Surprisingly, that’s precisely what has occurred since Game of Thrones first aired in 2011. As the show hurdles toward its finale, I’ve noticed an avalanche of think pieces ranging from how the show deals with issues of gender and race to what behaviors — good and bad — exemplify the leaders of Westeros. While the show itself is pure fantasy, many of the situations facing its characters apply to people working at organizations around the globe today.
During a recent episode, while watching Daenerys Targaryen’s anguished face as she realized her pathway to the Iron Throne may soon be blocked by arcane rules, I thought about qualified people missing out on opportunities to ascend to the highest places of business, government, and society because diverse succession planning is an afterthought. Unfortunately, as in Westeros, poor succession planning remains a fact in most institutions. But while the fictional Westerosi will suffer the consequences of omitting diversity in succession planning, you can avoid this by following a simple process for improving your organization’s efforts in the real world, by undertaking a REAL (Rigorous, Effective, Accountable, Long-term) approach.
It all starts with Rigor. Organizations with successful succession plans demonstrate commitment to these efforts from top to bottom. Commitment is being courageous enough to openly and unapologetically communicate about the intentional decision to embrace diversity in succession planning. As with any strategic priority, executives and senior leaders must actively plan, support, and demonstrate the behaviors necessary to drive the hiring, development, and promotion of emerging talent of all backgrounds. By implementing it with the same rigor as other strategic initiatives, current and prospective employees, customers, and investors will recognize that thoughtful succession planning plays a key role in the future of the organization. If the White Walkers had been more rigorous about their succession plan, they may still be in the Great Game! Instead, they’ve been erased from existence.
Once a strong commitment has been established, executives and senior leaders must determine how they will know their succession planning processes are Effective. As the adage says, if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Fruitful succession planning includes ongoing measurement and monitoring of these efforts. Before an organization can do that, however, it needs to assess how it is currently performing by creating a baseline*, followed by discussions about what future success should look like. When those conversations are complete, develop SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goals that guide the execution of specific tasks that lead to the future state. Design a cadence for monitoring, revisiting, and adjusting these goals as you would with any other key business driver. Ask for feedback and communicate achievements to the entire organization. Without measuring effectiveness, you’ll never know if all the rigor you’ve created translates to results. While he built a diverse team with representation from across the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis Baratheon failed to assess if his succession plan would perform effectively without his leadership. The outcome? House Baratheon stands no more following his death (or does it?).
To drive adoption of the rigorous and effective practices needed for this kind of transformational change, an Accountable senior leader must lead the charge within the organization. This person is ultimately responsible for ensuring diversity becomes top-of-mind in succession planning across the enterprise. The leader decides the measurements, metrics, and expected outcomes of the future state. He or she develops the business case for diverse succession planning and influences others to embrace a new mindset. Without an accountable sponsor at the helm, the good habits building inside the firm may not sustain, because, without a champion, efforts may lose momentum to other priorities. Along her journey to the Iron Throne, Daenerys Targaryen communicated her expectations for promoting diverse people to her leadership team. She also held the leaders of the Iron Born fleet and Qaarth accountable for not meeting these expectations. While she has no plans to name a successor just yet, the Dragon Queen remains in the Game because she practices what she preaches, influencing by seeking counsel from people across the Kingdom. (DISCLAIMER: We’ll see what happens in the last two episodes of the show!)
The last tenet in getting REAL involves establishing a Long-term plan for sustaining a culture where diverse succession planning occurs instinctively. Spearheaded by the Accountable senior leader and guided by SMART goals, the long-term plan clearly articulates the actions the organization will take to arrive at the future state. These actions work toward increasing organizational maturity around mindful recruiting and hiring; identification of emerging leader candidates; training, development, and coaching of emerging talent; and support of transitioning leaders. While the Wall came down, the Night’s Watch survived this catastrophic event because they purposefully identified leadership candidates from within their ranks and across Westeros. They developed these diamonds in the rough into leaders who could be counted upon when the succession plan unexpectedly came into play.
Even in the fantasy world of Game of Thrones, the great Houses survive and die based on how well they employ the REAL model for diverse succession planning. Can you think of success stories where you’ve implemented these kinds of strategies to improve your organization? Any lessons learned that others should avoid? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.