March 2019

By Mike Markovits


I thought I knew everything about succession planning. What else could I possibly learn after a quarter century leading this activity at two global companies with world-renowned leadership development practices? As it turns out, I still had a lot to learn.

But let me back up. I first learned succession planning as a young human resources professional at GE, where Session C was a studied and replicated set of tools and processes. Jack Welch devoted a month out of each year to succession planning, and GE was considered to have the gold-plated standard in that arena.

Then I went to IBM, where I had global, corporate-wide responsibility for succession planning. IBM was different than GE in many ways; I learned some variations on familiar approaches and also created and introduced some new tools and processes. When I left, I thought IBM reflected the new best practice in succession planning.

What I did not know during my twenty-five-plus years at these two prestigious corporations was how to notice and correct for gender and racial biases, and how to build gender and race equity into a succession planning process. I have learned this in the last seven years working at AchieveMission and consulting to nonprofit organizations across the United States.

Early in my years with AchieveMission, I remember introducing the basic tools of a Talent Review – the 9-box and successor chart – to a well-regarded youth services organization serving predominantly people-of-color. After the senior leadership team completed the 9-box on the direct service and middle management layers of the organization, we stepped back and looked at the distribution of names in the 9-box. With surprise, we noticed that the box for low-performing and low-potential staff contained exclusively people-of-color. In contrast, white staff members were uniformly perceived as medium-to-high performance and medium-to-high potential. At the time, we brainstormed actions that we could take; for example, the organization developed and implemented a mentoring program for staff-of-color.

While implementing a mentoring program was a good talent development action, in retrospect we did not explore deeply enough why we saw the 9-box distribution that we did. Key questions that we could have asked ourselves include:

  • Were managers trained on race and gender equity and implicit bias prior to assessing their direct reports for the succession planning exercise? Were there differences in how different managers assessed members of their teams? Was there an individual manager or two who supervised the preponderance of identified “low-performing / low-potential” individuals?
  • In addition to individual causes for the “low performing / low potential” assessments, were their systemic causes for the 9-box distribution? For example, were employees expected to “sink or swim” or was there active coaching and support for people, especially people new to their roles?
  • In the actual discussion during the Talent Review, were there opportunities for alternative insights about identified “low-performing / low-potential” individuals to be shared, or was there more of a groupthink mentality that did not allow for pushback? If some degree of groupthink was present, what explains that phenomenon? Is it an indication of bias?


One essential piece of succession planning is for the assessors to initiate a conversation amongst themselves about trends related to race or gender (or other relevant diversity criteria for your organization). This conversation can surface blind spots in our leaders and in our talent development practices. Questions to ask during this discussion include:

  • What trends do you notice related to race and gender when you review the Talent Review data?
  • What questions surface for you as you look at the Talent Review data?
  • What are possible hypotheses for what has led to this data?
  • What actions could we take to address the trends we see in the data?


Thanks to my nonprofit sector partners, I have now learned quite a bit about how to pay attention to race and gender equity in a succession planning process, and I’m sure there is more for me – and all of us – to learn and incorporate into our talent development. What is now undoubtedly clear to me is that I can and should be a bold observer, facilitator, and guide for organizations, helping them to focus on race and gender equity as they implement and execute succession planning.