Lack of Bench Strength

By:  Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

I like basketball.  I’ve always liked it.  I like playing basketball with my kids, and I like watching it both in person and on TV.  My favorite team is the Oklahoma City Thunder.  I like complaining about how Westbrook is hogging the ball and then cheering like crazy when he gets on a shooting streak.  I like to watch all of the Thunder players, but they do have an ongoing issue, and it has to do with their bench strength.  Here’s a quote from Alex Kirsher on SB Nation last April during the playoffs:

Russell Westbrook is the best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it’s not cutting-edge basketball knowledge that they’ll do worse when he’s not on the floor. But the degree to which they were inept without him during this week’s playoff series loss to the Houston Rockets is staggering.”

This is what happens when there is a lack of bench strength, and it doesn’t just happen in basketball.  In fact, in our most recent Trends in Executive Development research, 466 organizations identified lack of bench strength, that is to say having leaders who are prepared, skilled, and ready to step into key positions as needed, as one of the top trends that organizations need to address for leadership today and in the near future.  The thing is, this isn’t a new trend.  From 2000–2014, a lack of bench strength has been in the top five of the most influential internal and external factors driving executive development.

When we look at the overall picture, we can identify several possibilities for the slow progress to bridge the bench strength gap:

  1. The demographics are not in our favor as the Boomers exit and Gen Xers move up, because there is a math problem. There are 11% fewer Gen Xers than there are Baby Boomers, so there are just not as many people to choose from as there were for the Boomers. Not to worry though, it won’t be long until the massive Gen Y generation gives the Xers a push or a little healthy competition for the “suite seats.”
  2. Senior executives are not convinced that bench strength is at the foundation of organizational success. Progress may be made in this area as executive development professionals educate senior executives on the trends, the current state of their organization, and work together to establish bench strength targets as key business objectives.
  3. The other possibility is bandwidth. Let me explain.  In 2016, lack of bench strength was rated as the #6 influencer on executive development, yet it was rated as the #13 key priority for executive development.  In other words, a lack of bench strength is being recognized as major influence on business and leadership, but is not being addressed at the same level of importance. Most of us have heard of doing the urgent versus doing the important.  Leaders have so many issues to deal with, the urgent often trumps the important, but I would argue that a lack of bench strength is in fact an urgent issue.

I believe the latter reason is the real culprit.  I believe that leaders fundamentally know that having a strong bench is important and that if they focus on it, they can fix the issue even when demographics are not in their favor, but the day to day urgent matters just will not relent long enough to make building a strong bench a top priority.   Unfortunately, if it doesn’t become a top priority, our companies will find themselves in a situation like the Oklahoma City Thunder where a mission critical position becomes vacant for any number of reasons and the bench is incapable of carrying on the business at the same level.

Companies can begin immediately to change their outlook by insisting that having a strong bench two and three deep for mission critical positions is a part of the culture.  Today, less than half (48%) of the organizations who completed our Trends survey have a formal succession management program.   Oversight of the bench strength issue will ideally start at the Board of Directors, with the CEO as champion.  The CEO can establish metrics for the bench and then report those metrics up to the board.  The board should hold the CEO accountable because what gets measured, gets done.

The CEO will then need to work with the Chief Human Resource Officer as well as the senior team to ensure that all mission critical positions have been accounted for in the succession plan.  After the positions are identified, the charge must be to get the bench prepared and ready to go in and play at a moment’s notice.

I once worked with a large radiology department back in 2005 and 2006.  The chief was finding it difficult to recruit top radiologists in a competitive market, so we called a retreat to focus on two things.  We wanted to get the right people in the right places and we wanted to tackle the bench strength issue.  We left the retreat with clarity as well as goals and actions and within a few months, the problem was solved with all seats filled and substitutions ready.

It’s not easy, but it is possible, and any company who decides to do well at this, can figure out a way to do it, because excellent succession planning is not a matter of genius.  It’s just a matter of focus.

About the Author:

Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of Executive Development Associates. She has over 15 years of experience successfully leading consulting firms through times of rapid growth and acquisitions as well as economic downturn and downsizing, in addition to 25+ years of experience coaching, educating and developing leaders.

Bonnie has over 30 published works including a book on the shifting workforce demographics and their impact on leadership entitled Decades of Differences. Her newest book, Leading with Vision: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce, hit shelves in May 2017.

She leads research initiatives and publishes results in the areas of Trends in Executive Development, Executive Coaching and High Potential Development.