Understanding bench strength principles, and improving the bench, is a powerful organisational development exercise.
Have you heard of ‘heirs and spares’? This colourful phrase captures the idea that a royal family should secure its succession by having a natural heir to the throne, and – to cover the risk of unforeseen circumstances – at least one ‘spare’, too.
This principle is highly relevant, and important, in an organisational context. The term used to describe the availability of talented people who can step into key roles as and when needed borrows from the sports world, where high-performing teams need to have strong replacements available on the bench to cover for first-choice selections in the case of injury, fatigue, form, or a change in tactics. All sportspeople’s careers draw to a close as they get older, too, so the pipeline of bench players is also about safeguarding continued success from one season to the next.
Hence the term ‘bench strength’. A formal definition of business bench strength is ‘the competence and number of employees ready to fill vacant leadership and other positions.’ However, genuine bench strength, as part of a consistent and deliberate talent strategy, boosts skills throughout the organisation, whilst spreading those key skills. It is about raising the level or depth of key skills, and their coverage, or breadth, across the company.
The benefits of bench strength
Leadership bench strength planning is vital to ensure a long-term horizon for the business. Further, when implemented throughout the company, bench strength forges agility, helps career pathing, and instils a learning and development culture throughout the organisation. These positively impact employee recruitment and retention, performance, and all-around engagement.
The gains are measurable, and proven. An organisation with a strong bench is 21% less likely to have to look externally to fill senior executive vacancies – a route that often comes with cost implications, time needed for onboarding, and a heightened risk of failure compared to internal promotions. Even more powerfully, leadership performance, measured against key objectives including strategy execution, maintaining competitiveness and innovation, improves by as much as a third in companies with solid bench strength, according to global consultants, Gartner.
Clearly, it’s only half the story to think of bench strength as a form of succession planning. A better way to sum up the principles and benefits of talent bench strength is ‘success planning’.
The causes of a weak bench
A lack of bench strength can easily creep upon any company. Causes include budget cuts to L&D programmes, suboptimal organisational structures, an unexpected loss of key employees, or a time lag between a change in business plans and the appropriate talent strategy adjustments. Recently, to the Great Resignation has seen a voluntary exodus of talent in many industries.
Declining bench strength is also, to some extent, a by-product of the rapidly changing business environment. Today, what companies need and expect from their people is very different to even the recent past. Many traditional positions no longer exist, while totally new positions have arisen, like Chief Sustainability Officer, or Chief Knowledge Officer, to name just two. Managers must also deal with the geographic dispersal of teams and the related complexities of hybrid work; leaders with the escalated stakeholder reporting requirements. Generally, roles are more fluid.
A weak bench can even be a by-product of a dynamic, fast-paced and results-oriented way of working – a culture of ‘just getting things done’. High productivity may be masking the fact that talent development is on the back burner, and that a highly agile organisational structure is not designed for dispersed work mastery. Everyone knows Sipho is the logistics expert, and Sarah the finance whiz, and when there’s an issue to resolve they are among a small group of go-to people. This works within the culture – but it’s not smart in terms of bench strength, and at any moment there could be problematic consequences.
The challenge, then, is to broaden bench strength across the enterprise. But many talent professionals – almost 40% of HR leaders, according to one survey – are unsure how to go about building bench strength. These five practical steps will help to clarify, and improve, the state of your organisation’s bench:
Plot and profile roles and jobs. Knowing leaders’ and key employees’ current roles and responsibilities is the starting point to define what the company needs on its metaphorical bench.
Identify critical roles. Usually, this focuses on the C-Suite and leadership team. But consider all areas of operations that are vital to the organisation’s success. And, from the perspective that talent bench strength is a vital part of futureproofing the organisation, think about what skills and capabilities the company will need in the future
Identify particularly high-potential and high-performing people. Most likely, the company has already earmarked certain people for greater responsibility. But, in the context of bench strength, deeper analysis is necessary. How well is this pool matched to key current and future roles? Does the pool spread across different organisational levels? Is it diverse?
Create holistic skills and learning development plan. This should integrate with the company’s strategic business plans. It should include training, ongoing knowledge-building initiatives, a mentorship programme, and strengths-based executive coaching.
Monitor the situation regularly. Having bench strength, today does not mean the company can rest on its laurels. Reassessment is vital because circumstances and needs change fast.
Whatever methods are used to assess and improve bench strength, these will only be effective if the organisation has a culture of high performance if employee development programmes are robust, and if they are aligned with the business’s strategy.
HR’s strategic role
Bench strength is a fundamental requirement of a successful business. Today, talent managers need to continuously identify areas to improve, as well as the key areas of strength which can be built upon and leveraged for success.
But a talent needs analysis is only one part of HR’s expanding strategic role. Identifying successors, thinking about new jobs and roles, planning the transfer of skills, and expanding the organisation’s overall skills capacity and capabilities: the context for this is transformation. Progressive companies are well along the way in embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) – which, in South Africa, encompasses the principles of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE). A smart bench strength approach ensures that the company’s investment in its people is optimised, and that its L&D programmes are delivering results. It flags, early, talent-related risks, and by incorporating meritorious, transparent career pathways, also contributes to inclusivity and a sense of belonging.
While some organisations may focus bench strength on leadership succession planning, those that build true bench strength develop employees because they understand the importance of people as the organisation’s main asset.
Basically, bench strength – whether among the leadership team, key management levels, or a mission-critical division – gives the company current capacity and future options. In today’s volatile and uncertain business environment, these attributes are a necessity. Which organisation can afford not to have bench strength?
At DigitalCampus we understand the need for bench strength and how to help your company go about building it. Contact us for further information, or visit our website to find out about our range of courses to build bench capability.
DigitalCampus is part of the LRMG group, specialists in igniting the performance of people.
Senior Partner and Managing Executive
In partnership with Dave Gorin