For many years, as world leaders in electronics have showcased their best at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a smaller side show, the annual Macworld Expo by Apple Inc, has stolen the thunder.
The show reaches an international audience as Apple Inc's charismatic, energetic, ideas man, Steve Jobs, presents the latest gadgets and sleekest designs about to be launched by Apple: an iPod, a new computing platform, iPhone, or the world's thinnest laptop.
So what happens when the man who makes the moment simply can't perform? This year, as media reports claimed Jobs was seriously ill following extensive weight-loss, Apple's leading man pulled out of the Apple show, asking Apple's senior vice president, Philip Schiller, to take his place in the presentation. Needless to say, the show lost the spark and energy it has displayed in previous years, raising questions on how Apple will continue to generate passion for its products should its leading man disappear from the business.
Could the same fate befall a law firm? As talent moves on, retires, or even dies, could law firms be facing a pivotal point in their existence?
The disappearing leader
Sean Reddell, director of consultancy Blaze Unlimited, says it may seem that a large organisation such as Apple, Microsoft or Virgin will be unable to function when their leaders take a backseat, but in reality it's the smaller organisations that are more likely to fall victim to such a loss.
"The risks are in the small professional services firms: the-150 person practices where you might have a hugely influential, charismatic leader who goes and then there is no talent available at the next level, no one who knows how to run the ship," he says. "That can have a quick impact on company culture."
At Freehills, director of people and development Gareth Bennett says that resting the success of an organisation on just a few key individuals means that the organisation is simply not sustainable in the first place.
"What we're trying to do is not build an organisation around the Richard Bransons of the world," he says. "What we want is people with humility, real business acumen, we want to spread that throughout the whole firm so that we are sustainable for the future - regardless of one or two individuals."
Bennett adds that there should be succession planning goals behind all individuals in a firm identifying the risks of how and when they might leave, how their replacements will be developed and what needs to be done to bring their successors into the business.
An opportunity to build
Succession planning should be as much about the growth of a firm, says Damien Dooley, HR director at Sparke Helmore, as it is about maintaining current performance and momentum.
Dooley believes one of the biggest traps an organisation can face is to think that succession only matters in terms of the current incumbents and how they do their job - especially if they are really great at doing it.
"The irony about good succession planning is that the more successful a current incumbent is, the less likely his or her successor will be able to repeat their performance," he says, "at least not in the same way."
Dooley believes that the priority should therefore be to not replace "like for like," but to think about the role as a means for future evolution, and thus consider how the position could be approached differently.
Finding a happy marriage between the career aspirations/retention of top talent and the future requirements of a law firm is no easy task, but Dooley maintains that, done successfully, it will transform the business.
"Done poorly it can crush its capability and future prospects," he says. "In truth, this process should cascade down through all levels of key roles in the firm and not just at top leadership levels.'
Generation of leaders
With a large proportion of baby-boomers expecting to retire between 2011 and 2020, it will not just be key individuals leaving a law firm but a deep pool of talent draining from the organisation all at once.
Before then, the current global financial crisis may just delay any mass exit of baby-boomer talent and, consequently, encourage law firms to shift their priorities when it comes to succession planning.
Reddell says that while the current crisis could be a blessing in disguise for delaying what could become a big problem in the future; organisations should be concerned by how quickly they have moved away from their goals of attracting and retaining talent. "Boards are suddenly laying off hundreds of people ... The problem, from my point of view, is that the skills and population shortage is going be here far beyond this economic crisis," he says.
"All of the sudden those organisations are going to be back in the market saying 'We need people' and there will be corporate memory there saying 'Hang on, you just ditched all those people'."
Bennett agrees that the current economic situation could be putting off the inevitable: "You could argue that people are less likely to leave in times like this and, therefore, your succession planning becomes easier," he says. "But if you think about it, you want people who can lead the firm through difficult times and that's the real challenge.
"It calls for more resilience, more innovative thought, different ways of doing things; it brings new skills and new levels of performance in terms of culture."
Bennett adds that in a time like this, it's even more essential that HR know just who is in their organisations and what their intentions are. "It's essential to know your leaders of the future, and the development that needs to be put into your people."
An organisation-wide commitment
With or without a financial crisis - or even a large generation of talent ready to move out of the workforce - succession planning is essential to the sustainability of a law firm.
A common mistake in a firm, says Reddell, is HR departments who believe they have a succession plan in place that really rests on one small initiative. "I do see people put one little thing in place and say 'OK, that's my workforce plan, succession plan, competency framework and our talent management program,'" he says.
At Freehills, Bennett believes that the succession planning strategy has worked because the firm ensured it achieved buy-in from the entire business. "It's not something which is HR-driven. It can be put together by us, but if the business doesn't find it useful then it's not going to work. It has to be aligned with the culture and the business strategy.
"Ensure [staff] own it, and that they use it," adds Bennett. "Ensure they see it as something they want to use in their everyday thoughts about their practice group or business area."
And, more importantly, ensure the future of the firm rest with all employees, instead of just a charismatic few.
- Angela Priestley