Natural Succession

We’ve all heard about those ‘eat or be eaten’ cultures. These are the workplaces where succession and advancement is a result of natural selection– ‘survival of the fittest’ environments. How well you navigate a jungle of threats, obstacles and barriers determines your fate. Scarcity of resources. Someone must be displaced or replaced in the hierarchy in order to make space.


Instinctively, people seek significance, meaning and the opportunity to feel competent by expressing their abilities. For most of our lives, this happens at work.


There is a Hierarchy of Engagement in the workplace that parallels our most basic human needs. Basically, we all aspire to achieve our potential. There is a more natural approach to succession happening today at Agrium that puts people into survival simulations to test their ‘fit’ness for real workplace situations.

In an interview with Saida Vuk, Manager of Organizational Development at Agrium Inc. we learn about how their Leadership in Action program allows high potential staff to demonstrate their abilities and receive input they may consider putting in their personal career development plan.

Traditional succession planning emphasizes appraisals and current performance as a method to determine who is ready. The limit here is that results of these assessments are largely determined and influenced by direct managers. Additionally, current performance is not a predictor of future success. When you factor the human instincts associated with sizing-up a potential successor you can anticipate what biases may be introduced. Very few managers are objective enough to think beyond their own advancement, personal security or basic survival. This would demand a unique DNA of selflessness, courage and vulnerability. Also, they are too ‘close’ to the staff, to ‘see the forest for the trees’ so to speak.

The first part of an effective succession management program is an assessment of staff potential and the trajectory of their capability. Managers are the primary reason why someone is or is-not performing at work. We are creatures of our environment and they are the first ones to shape it. To identify and cultivate your true high potentials (HiPos) demands perspective from above the canopy. An objective view also requires us to remove the individual from the organization by creating a situational environment that simulates real scenarios. This is the second part, where the focus shifts from performance assessment to a learning investment.

What makes the program Saida implemented at Agrium different is that it is a development exercise. A situational learning experience.


“HiPo here means the senior team has taken an active interest in your development.”


Here are a few of the objectives Saida identified when she set out to create this program…

  • Create leadership development that spanned the entire organization
  • HiPo group would get formal feedback as part of the process
  • Help HiPos demonstrate their strengths, reveal areas of development and blind spots
  • Generate awareness and support for weaknesses
  • Senior leadership involved hands-on
  • Receive objective feedback from people who have ‘been there done that’
  • Provide exposure across business units
  • Ensure they were not being observed by direct managers
  • Scalability by involving past participants
  • HiPo participants become part of a formal mentoring program
  • Get in front of next level management and find out how to improve

Natural succession is about the evolution of human capabilities over time (not competencies– the difference here is significant, for another post). As long as we can synchronize the arc of people’s capability with the complexity of each current and future role, we have a symbiotic relationship between people and their work that generates desired levels of engagement, productivity and results.

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