Succession Planning – the Spotify Way

Until now, it’s been a conscious choice for our Succession Planning to be fairly casual. During our years as a start-up and then years in scaling mode, our more relaxed approach with tools like the Talent Snapshot, were perfectly suited to us.

Last year we took a pause to ask ourselves: with the hyper-growth more stable, was it the right time to actively work with developing our long term talent planning approach? It seemed like a no-brainer – it was exactly the right time!

Why focus on Succession Planning now?

Having an overview of our current and future top talent and business critical positions would enable us to identify talent gaps and mitigate risks. It would create more thoughtful planning around external talent pipelines, providing business continuity and highlighting the tent pole hires we should make, and showing us when and where we should make them. 

At this chapter in Spotify’s journey we’re aiming for consistency and calibration in order to become more effective at identifying and retaining future leaders. We needed an approach that works for smaller teams, larger teams, and across entire business units. And it should include assessment criteria that define Succession Planning at Spotify, and explain how the business should use it. All without unnecessary administration and time consuming coordination (of course!).

The benefits of Succession Planning

This all sounds quite tricky, right? Yes, but the really tricky part is to ensure Succession Planning doesn’t just turn into a) a tick-box exercise, b) perception of an informal promise of promotion c) a disappointment, and/or d) misstaken as the answer to people saying they want career development, but actually are more interested in a new title and higher compensation. 

Instead, it should be a structured way to play offense rather than defence, or in other words, to create Succession Plans that are invaluable for the business. So our aim was to have good Succession Planning to be proactive instead of reactive, and to allow for more relevant and honest development discussions. 

Business Continuity Planning: We should always have an up-to-date view of our organization’s top talent and critical positions today and tomorrow. Why? We agree with Simon Arcus – Talentism is the new capitalism. Our people are our most valuable asset. Our people are our differentiator and competitive advantage on our journey towards becoming the world’s largest audio network. Having this up-to-date view helps us to pin-point the data sets that will flag risks from a retention or business continuity perspective. 

Predictability: Recurring discussions about Succession Planning provide a head’s up on where a shift in role or talent is needed. E.g. If we spin up a new business that requires senior leadership it shouldn’t be difficult for us to solve this from a talent perspective. With structured Succession Planning we already have our top talent and their growth areas identified. 

The Gardner’s Approach: Let’s face it, this approach is challenging. Most managers see their talent as theirs. To plant or find, grow and nurture, groom and make resilient…to then be poached by another manager…? Yes! We want managers to see talent as Spotify’s. To be a really good gardener means working with the businesses best interest at heart. It’s actually good for the individual and for the organisation. So, why is this so challenging? Well, the better the gardener, the more plants – sorry, talent! – you might lose. That said, if you crack the code of the gardener philosophy, people will stop asking for traditional career frames. They will trust their manager and they will trust the process and as a result top talent knows they are being invested in. Retention will be less of an issue and tenure will be longer. 

External Talent Pipeline: By identifying future business-critical positions and mapping them to people already in the organisation, we will enable our Talent Acquisition team to proactively build an external talent pipeline. This positions us to be able to scale with speed, plugging holes ahead of time. Ideally, building a database of talent so that staffing decisions can be made quickly when key positions open up. It also decreases room for error when selecting a candidate. And finally, this will be a key element of creating an external benchmark that we can compare with internal homegrown talent – in real time. 

Roles and People

So what are our principles for this new, more rigorous Succession and Talent Planning? We created an analytical approach that allowed us to map roles and people over four areas, and discussions around Succession Planning are centered on these:

  1. Business critical roles today: If vacant would have a significant impact on mid-to-long term business continuity
  2. Business critical roles tomorrow: Roles that will differentiate us from competition in the future 
  3. People Ready now: Band members that possess that extra something, who lead by example, and who impact Spotify in a proactive way
  4. People Ready tomorrow: Band members that adapt to the future Spotify and are on a path acquiring new skills and building breadth and depth of experiences

We wanted to distinguish between roles and people to make sure we can get a picture of the band members who we consider future leaders, but that don’t currently sit in a role that’s business critical, or who are currently identified as a successor to a business critical role. It’s really important to us at Spotify that these band members were not overlooked so that we can prepare them to take on new challenges and by doing so continue to engage, challenge and retain them. 

Talent Intelligence 

It may be hard, but an essential part of this process is to look into the insights you have about your talent and use this talent intelligence wisely. You must dare to separate important roles and business-critical roles. And you need the courage to make a distinction between the people who matter, the people who are doing a great job, the people who are doing an awesome job, and the people who are acing it to a level of x8 compared to their peers. This doesn’t mean the majority are not important, nor does it mean that they don’t have important jobs – but this mapping fueled by talent intelligence is necessary for a more stringent Succession Planning approach to work. 

The calibration discussions

Coming up with a framework for Succession Planning is not really rocket science, making sure you use your valuable data from analysis and discussions in the smartest way – that’s the tougher part. 

We started with our HRBP Leads sitting down with their respective C-Leads to do the obvious, but often so forgotten – defining what Succession Planning should be at Spotify. What are we trying to solve for and what does that mean? These discussions then helped us to define our principles – our four mapping areas. 

Next up, we ran a calibration session in the HRBP Lead Team to ensure that we had approached this the same way and also to give each other input on the cross functional Succession Plans. This was a vivid discussion and led to several add-ons and also removals from the Succession Planning data. 

Then, before roll-out our CHRO discussed this with our executive team, ensuring they were all on-board and that there truly was calibration across the entire organisation. Now, both the executive team and the HRBP Leads will continue these discussions, checking in on our new Succession Planning approach on a regular basis, making sure we stay consistent. In addition, the HRBP Leads continue to flag current senior openings and potential suitable internal candidates. 

To make sure this really works, we also reiterate the need for everyone within these discussions to remain open-minded about ‘losing’ a key employee to another internal position – to be good gardeners.

As we see it, it’s way more important than writing a development plan that will never be looked at again. It can’t be a static exercise that you do once a year but instead, it needs to be an ongoing dialogue and calibration of the data with the appropriate stakeholders; senior management and the HRBP team. 

Staying efficient in Succession Planning

Finally, how many times have you worked with Succession Planning or various Talent Planning exercises and kept the data, insights and plans in spreadsheets, or another rigid template. Too many, I bet!

We’ve had enough of the spreadsheets. An exercise like this is too important not to be captured in a tool that is not manually owned. So we partnered with our rockstar HRIS team and built our own tool in our HR system. This helps us keep the data current and make sure it’s not dependent solely on the HRBPs that are having the discussions. If our HRBPs or Executive team need the data, there’s no waiting for a specific person to dive into a spreadsheet and find what they need. It’s as simple as them pulling a report from our system themselves and having confidence that it’s always going to be up-to date. 

Our Succession Planning wish list

With our new Succession Planning tool, we know what critical positions we have, we mitigate risks, and identify opportunities via vacancies. Finally, by frequently discussing roles, openings, changes and matches among the HR Business Units Leads we are able to provide the organisation with keys to success. And in turn, this enables our Talent Acquisition Leads to proactively screen the market and build a pipeline of executive talent that’s right for Spotify. 

Having continuous discussion always leads us to having a wish list – the underlying questions of ‘what’s next?’. 

We’re already thinking about how we can make sure our tool will be as good in ‘view mode’ and ‘discuss/calibrate mode’, as it is for capturing and keeping our talent data. Additionally, we look forward to measuring the impact of this work where our end-state would be a high rate of cross functional promotions and career opportunities for our top talent as a result of proper Succession Planning. 

Stay tuned for more!