May 5, 2007

Bench-strength is the availability of people in your organization who can easily move to fill the shoes of people who decide to part ways with the organization. Strong bench-strength is a sign of healthy organization as well as effective people management practices. Low bench-strength on the other hand is a clear sign of troubles ahead. Yet a large number of companies fail to address the issue of bench-strength. Often, these companies rely on outside consultants to hire for a position that fell vacant. Frequently, this takes months to complete. I know of a company which remained without a category manager for almost a year before the replacement came. And the category was worth in excess of Rs 300 crores at that time! I also know of a company which remained without a brand manager of a Rs 250 crore brand for more than 6 months! This is not fictional; this is real.

Not only a poor bench-strength indicative of future trouble, it also gives an impression to the mind of star performers that they are irreplaceable. And this is nothing less than onset of cancerous lump in the organization. Once the star performers get a feeling that they are irreplaceable, they start throwing their tantrums that not only demotivates scores of people but also dents the values of the organization in long run. Hence, it’s in the interest of everyone if organization, as a strategy, decides to develop a strong bench-strength in its rank and file.

Following are some of the factors that can adversely affect the bench-strength of any organization –
  1. Management’s obsession with short term – Managers and leaders who are able to balance the long-term as well as short-term generally do very well. Problem starts when they become too obsessed with quarterly numbers to the extent that every other important thing they are supposed to do, including development of people, is relegated down the priority list. Once the organization’s mandarins get myopic vision of their roles and responsibilities, they start focusing on what someone can do at present rather than what the potential of a person is. They start living too much in ‘present’ without an iota of thought about future. This hampers the allocation of time and effort to develop people for future roles. It’s like driving a car and looking at hood rather than the long road in front! No surprises that they often meet with accidents unaware of what hit them so hard.

  2. Insecurity among leaders and managers – Most effective leaders and managers are people who love to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are. Yet, they are a scarce commodity in the corporate ecosystem. Very often a sense of insecurity feeling is there among managers and leaders that alienates them with people who they think can outsmart them. Due to this, they tend to gravitate towards mediocre people who they think are their alter ego but at the same time who can’t outsmart them. In the process, people with potential get lost in the organizational jungle or move on to other company.

  3. Hero worship – When you have too few heroes in your organization and they are worshipped like God, they get an ego bigger than the organization. Once heroes develop a big ego, they start feeling that they are the start and end of everything while others only an army of clerks to support them. This is when development of people takes a back seat.

  4. Poor performance appraisal processes and systems – When you have vague and hazy appraisals, true potential and developmental areas of people never emerge. Well, talking of appraisals, I have seen a few appraisal forms that have the total score pre-filled by the boss while the details remained to be filled! And these were for people who were given promotion. So if you have an appraisal system that is a perfunctory exercise to display subjective judgment of the boss, your bench-strength would always be poor.

  5. An administrative HR rather than a strategic HR – HR has a habit of getting stuck in the administration rather than development of people. They get so preoccupied with administrative aspects of people management that they forget that their primary job is to help people reach their true potential. So instead of spending time with people, they end up spending time amid excel sheet analyzing weekly attrition rate! Due to this they are unable to drive the importance of having a strong bench-strength to the people throughout the organization. Instead of exhorting people to be ready with their successors and discussing training and developmental needs of people, they end up interacting with outside consultants in their search for replacements.

  6. Centralized organization structure – More control means less trust in people. More control also means less authority for people. In a highly centralized organizations majority of people start feeling like pawns that are expected to follow orders from top rather than think on their feet to decide the best course of action. In such scenarios, who does what is also dictated by the people who control most of the things in an organization. As such, hardly any development of people takes place in a centralized environment where everything is dependent on the whims and fancies of people who control things.

  7. Low priority issue on top leadership’s agenda list – Ensuring a strong bench-strength is a major initiative that needs to be driven down the organization from the top till it gets into the head and heart of people throughout the organization. Sadly, many CEOs don’t even think about it, let alone drive it!
It is important to build a people centric organization which is bigger than any individual and is independent of the coming and going of any individual. You can do this only if you have enough arms and ammunition in form of competent people, ever ready to don new responsibilities. So, perk up your bench-strength.