According to CIPD, succession planning is ‘the process of identifying and developing potential future leaders or senior managers, as well as individuals to fill other business-critical positions, either in the short- or the long-term.’ This is something in Theatreland that we do exceptionally well.
You, as the manager (or director) of your West End team, are analysing performances, giving constructive feedback (or ‘notes’ as we call it) and ensuring your cast are challenged and motivated. You cast your lead performer in the role that fits their skills and abilities, but it’s only a matter of time before they are dazzled by the excitement of another show. As they are human, they will also get ill and need a holiday - if you don't have a backup solution then the show will not go on. So what is your Plan B?
A smart director has people in the team who are ready and willing to take on additional responsibilities, or are flexible and agile enough to step up at the last minute. They have two main options for this event; an understudy or a swing.
An understudy is in the main cast at every performance, therefore knows the team and their objectives inside out, and steps up for the lead if they are ill or have booked time off. By my experience the understudy has to be even more fantastic than the original lead under pressure, especially if the lead is well recognised for their skills (think Glenn Close falling ill in Sunset Boulevard). If the audience see the understudy is on, instead of their expected lead, then this person has the task to capture their attention from the offset, get the message across and get the project delivered to a high standard.
A swing in theatre is a member of the cast who knows several roles in the ensemble and cast, and when an understudy steps up to take the lead, the swing takes the responsibility for the role the understudy is leaving behind. This person will be the most flexible in your team; they will have a wide variety of abilities and strengths, and can flit from one task to another effortlessly, particularly in a time of crisis or impending ever-changing deadlines.
There is also an option to use a standby; a person who only replaces the lead when necessary and otherwise is not involved in the show. They are expected to be available at a moment’s notice though, but only tend to exist if the lead is a well-known performer in the theatre industry. This could be a peer colleague who can lead your team when you aren’t there, or a project manager who can step in to help quickly if your team is lacking capacity or expertise.
Where do I get an understudy or a swing I hear you sing, possibly harmonising with other managers in your workplace (well I can dream)? Consider your ensemble, or chorus; this group consists of the core members of the cast who fill smaller yet necessary roles and dance numbers. Few shows on Broadway or the West End do not have an ensemble, and this group has both the key people that keep the team going, as well as your future understudies and swings. Nurture this group and your team will function flawlessly and perform to a high standard, as well as become key players in your succession plan.
If you can develop your team to have transferrable skills whilst ensuring each member’s skills and workloads align to the higher purpose of the organisation, then they will be more capable and willing to step into the limelight at short notice. Your team look to you to make these essential casting decisions in times of crisis, so make them quickly and confidently and ensure you support them to do the best job they can. Remember that history has its eyes on you.
CIPD, 2015: Succession planning factsheet [online], available at: http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/factsheets/succession-planning.aspx, last accessed 3 September 2016.