Psychologists Bring Value to Succession Planning

By Andy Smith | AAPL
June 15, 2020

The data and analytics psychologists provide to healthcare organizations allow for smarter decisions, fewer costly mistakes, and better outcomes.


When it comes to technology, healthcare can proudly boast that it’s usually on the cutting edge with the latest, greatest, and most innovative advancements the industry has to offer.

Yet when it comes to succession planning, healthcare often finds itself “way behind the ball,” according to Quint Studer, founder of the Studer Group, a renowned healthcare consulting organization.

“We have to have the best technology when it comes to electronic health records and clinical outcomes,” Studer says. “Yet, when it comes to assessing talent, we still do it the way we’ve done it for years.”

In other words, healthcare continues to assess talent without the kind of valuable, predictive bio-data that increases the prospects of successful outcomes in planning and promotions. So, what’s the answer? “I’m a big believer in using organizational psychologists to help with the process,” Studer says.

One industrial and organizational psychologist Studer has relied on for more than 30 years is Chris Reilly, PhD, who has been consulting on succession plans since 1989 and says the process for putting together a plan is “pretty standard,” though it’s also quite thorough and involved.



The first order of business for the psychologist is assessing and understanding the current structure of an organization, Reilly explains. That might mean meeting with the CEO or human resources personnel to understand the key players, hierarchy, goals and values of the company, current market conditions shaping its future, and whether it plans to grow or prefers to maintain the status quo. “All of that impacts the actual succession plan,” Reilly says.

The role of the psychologist in all of this depends on the client. Some clients want only the data the psychologist is able to produce as an aid in developing a plan or deciding who’s promotable.  Other clients want more than data. They want the psychologist fully engaged in the development of the succession plan — identifying cultural variables, specific desired management leadership traits, and special traits required for other positions.

With regard to promoting the right person: What are their characteristics and how do those characteristics fit with the job and the organization? “You want to look at not only what the position is now but will be required of it in the future, especially if the company is set to grow or change,” Reilly advises. “Likewise, you hope to hire people with potential beyond their current position, so you want to assess their ability to grow and take on more responsibility.”



Beyond assessments, psychologists take a big-picture approach to the succession planning process by answering such questions as: What and how should it be done? Who should be included in the process? “It’s that assessment of potential for the future when they’re hiring or assessing someone for development,” Reilly says. The problem, he cautions, is that promotions often are based on subjective intuition, which often leads to regrettable decisions — that a person’s proven success at one level is no guarantee of success at the next. “As much as you read about it and say, ‘Oh,  I’m  never going to [fall] prey to that,’ people are promoted based on what they’re doing in their current jobs,” Reilly says, and the decision maker can’t always assess objectively because “they already know the person.”

And that’s where the psychologist enters the picture, using assessments and data to evaluate a candidate’s ability to adapt and grow with the job and the organization over time.



Remarkably, some organizations make plans based entirely on assumptions or without asking even the most basic question:  “Do you even want this job?”  Sometimes people are identified as “a perfect fit” for a successor role but are never approached about their interest in moving into the job, or whether they’re happier staying in their current job. 

“They get through the process [based on assumptions] and then the person turns them down,” Reilly says. “What a disaster.”

Disasters, however, are often as predictable as they are preventable — prevention often coming in the form of a simple commonsense approach that entails assessing candidates before promoting them. Makes sense, right? Yet that’s not what happened recently when a client rushed two promotions then called Reilly in after the fact to assess the qualifications of the two appointees.

“During the assessment, of course, I found out that one of them was going to retire in a year,” Reilly recalls. “They never asked her what her plans were. And the other one had the technical skills to be great in his current job but didn’t have the interpersonal skills [for the job], not to mention he already had other significant issues.” “You’ve got to ask people first, and you’ve got to collect your data first,” Reilly emphasizes. “Promoting them … and then doing the developmental assessment is not the right way to do it.”

Psychologists typically ask the leaders to identify those they’re considering for promotion, then invite those prospective candidates for career conversations: What are your goals? Would you like to be promoted? What kind of position are you looking for next? What’s your timeframe? Responses to questions about possible promotions generally fall into three tiers, Reilly says:

40 percent excited: “Oh, my gosh, I want to be the VP and I’m hoping to do that within three or four years.” These are the people you really want in succession planning.

30 percent tepid: “Yeah, I guess I could be persuaded if you really need me to move on.” These people are content in their current role, but motivating, mentoring, and investing in their development can be worthwhile.

30 percent decline: “No, I’m not interested. I like what I’m doing.” Don’t even bother.



What does a psychologist look for in those being considered for promotion? The answers probably won’t surprise, but the process calls for discussions, interviews, assessments, and data collection that collectively help determine a person’s characteristics and how their traits and attributes mesh with the criteria for any given position. According to Reilly, those criteria include:

Insight and interpersonal skills: An initial informal discussion can go a long way toward determining whether people have what it takes to move up and whether they’re worth the expense of additional time, testing, or assessments. Formal interviews take a closer look at people's ability to understand others and themselves their strengths and weaknesses which is then compared to objective data gathered during testing. “I don’t care what the rest of your skills are,” Reilly says. “If you don’t have good insight into people, chances are you’re not going far in your career.”

Problem-solving skills: Also known as “critical-thinking skills,” Reilly notes that they are measured by nearly every assessment and are “weighted heavily when assessing job fit” because they are “the measure most highly correlated with performance.” He divides these skills into two categories:

  1. Verbal reasoning or intuitive problem solving; and
  2. Understanding metrics or the ability to find patterns in data and to help people understand their role.

“If they don’t have the quantitative skills for understanding metrics, or their verbal reasoning isn’t very high, they’re not going to problem-solve well,” Reilly says.

Energy or activity level: Can this person keep up with the demands of the position? What is their sense of urgency? Are they able to prioritize? Do they use the resources and tools available to them?

“You want to make sure that person can get all that done and not burn out because a lot of people, when they get promoted, the reason they end up leaving or not doing well is because it’s too much for them,” Reilly says. “So, you want to check that energy level.”

Motivation: “What’s actually driving them? What are their most basic needs?” Reilly asks. “There’s no right answer.  It depends on the job and  company,  but  you  want  to  look at their need for structure and guidance. Are they independent enough in their current role? What is their need for stability and predictability? Are they willing to change? Do they have a high need for recognition that they won’t get in this role or that’s inherent in the role?”

Knowing people's motivations is just as important as knowing if those motivations will be present in the job, Reilly says, “because you want it to be a good job for them, not just the company.”

Relationship building: After defining the key players, it’s important to determine the person’s ability to establish and maintain long-term relationships with those players. This is assessed through testing and examining their work history. “When you look at people who fail, many have most of the skills but don’t understand how to deal with a certain constituency,” Reilly says. “For example, they may try to push and tell people what to do rather than persuade and coach them, and that’s going to have ripple effects.”

Work habits: This paints a broad brush across people's ability to organize, plan, delegate, strategize, and, again, use resources. It entails their leadership style and whether they know the difference between leading and managing people — and whether they can they do both in day-to-day operations management. “That’s a tough one because usually they have to bend one way or the other. They might really love strategy but not like details, or they really like details but don’t like a particular academic approach,” Reilly explains. “That’s important, especially in succession planning because often you’re going from details and specifics to planning this, planning that, and taking action, too. Or, thinking more broadly: Where will we be in a year? Then setting goals and understanding how functional areas can help each other or work together.”

“You could literally look at 50 or 60 psychological and behavioral variables that would come out of an assessment,” Reilly continues, “but that can really muddy the waters. By learning about the company and job, we limit this vast data- base of information to the most important 10–15 characteristics that are likely to predict success.”



Not all jobs require the same kinds of characteristics in a person. Consequently, desired traits for a senior-level executive might be entirely different for middle-management position or other staff position. For example, for a job that requires repetitive and relational interactions with patients or other staff, you’d probably prefer someone who is motivated by predictability, stability, and consistency.

“But if you put that same person in a role where you want them to affect change and direct people [to] do things differently for the first time, that’s a huge red flag because they’re not motivated by that and it scares them a little,” Reilly says.



The basis for including psychologists in succession planning regardless of their level of engagement is to leverage the valuable data they mine to ensure the smartest personnel decisions are made. And yet, the data in their reports — no small investment are sometimes overridden by “strong individuals” who believe in their own intuition rather than data. In other words, it all comes down to the discipline of trusting the data. “And discipline is really the No. 1 barrier to succession planning,” Reilly says. “That includes the discipline to collect data on everyone in the plan and then utilize the data to make informed decisions regarding the future of each individual.” Naturally, some are more disciplined than others. Problems arise, however, when CEOs or COOs interject themselves in the process and say, “Oh, that’s great information, but I’m going to give this job to John even though Evelyn and Michelle scored higher.”

“Granted, there are times when we hire people for specific (perhaps short-term) reasons,” Reilly concedes. “But what I’m talking about is when they’re truly looking to the future in their planning. That’s when it’s critical that people follow the plan and remain disciplined.”

Other obstacles include concern about discussing succession plans with those not included in the plan, and fear that those excluded might leave and create costly turnover for the organization.

“How do you announce the succession plan without de-motivating those who aren’t in the plan?” Reilly asks. It’s a fair question, but not without an answer.

Acknowledging it’s a conversation many leaders would rather avoid, he suggests offering those people incentive and hope. “You know what,” you might say, “your performance this year hasn’t been great, but here are some areas for improvement, and if you do these things then you’ll be a candidate in next year’s plan.”

The alternative is to say nothing and allow people to talk behind the scenes and draw their own uninformed conclusions. “That’s when it can get more political and negative,” Reilly cautions.

“The hard part is that the people who can’t [meet these goals] are probably going to get demotivated and may leave anyway,” Reilly resolves. “But the good part is, the people who really want to grow usually understand: ‘Here are two things I need to work on.’ And they’ll stay and work on it.”


This article appeared in the Physician Leadership Journal, May/June, 2020


How to Help an Employee Who Struggles with Time Management
How to Spot — and Develop — High-Potential Talent in Your Organization