Succession Excellence: Navigating the Complexities of C-suite Continuity – Cezary Mączka

Succession Excellence: Navigating the Complexities of C-suite Continuity - interview with Cezary Mączka, Group Chief People & Culture Officer at Wielton Group
Leadership Skills
Succession Planning

In the second installment of our series “Succession Excellence: Navigating the Complexities of C-suite Continuity”, Margaret Jaouadi speaks to Cezary Mączka, Chief People and Culture Officer at Wielton Group (WLT:WSE), leading global semi-trailers, trailers, and rigid bodies manufacturer. Cezary shares invaluable perspectives on crucial topics such as talent identification, succession planning frameworks, and the delicate balance between internal promotions and external hires.

Throughout the discussion, Cezary highlights the challenges and best practices in succession planning, including the importance of transparency, leadership buy-in, and fostering a continuous learning and development culture. His insights underscore the strategic importance of succession planning in driving organizational resilience and growth.

Cezary’s wealth of experience offers a masterclass in succession planning for organizations seeking to enhance their leadership continuity efforts. From identifying high-potential talent to designing comprehensive development plans, his approach emphasizes the critical partnership between senior leaders and HR in shaping the future leadership landscape.

Special thanks go to Sahar Akhtar, Head of Sector, Industrials EMEA at Pacific International Executive Search, for introducing Cezary to Margaret.

Margaret Jaouadi
Please tell us about your career journey.

Cezary Mączka
My professional journey began with blue-chip companies such as General Electric, and EDF, and as the Chief HR & Innovations Officer at Budimex. Over 25 years, I’ve steadily progressed through various roles starting as an HR site integration manager and working my way up to Vice President of HR for General Electric’s GE Capital business in Poland and Eastern Europe. Currently, I serve as the Chief People and Culture Officer at Wielton Group.

I am a qualified lawyer, and have an Executive MBA from Strathclyde Business School, with additional learning experiences at the University of Michigan – Stephen M. Ross School of Business, where I had the opportunity to study under Dave Ulrich, known for his influential HR model many companies use to date.

Margaret Jaouadi
Please tell me about your experiences with implementing succession planning across organizations you have worked for.

Cezary Mączka
My introduction to the concept of succession planning happened during my tenure at GE, and it was a rigorously structured process. Every March, for two weeks, the then-CEO, Jack Welch, halted all operational activities to focus solely on assessing talent within the organization.

The objective of succession planning was clear: identify potential successors, pinpoint any skill gaps, and strategize for addressing those gaps. Succession planning, in essence, revolved around three pivotal questions. Firstly, did we have suitable successors in line? If so, did they require any further development to seamlessly transition into their roles? And if there were talent gaps, how did we intend to bridge them?

The absence of identified successors posed a threat to business continuity, necessitating a proactive approach to talent acquisition. Various techniques were employed to source talent from the external market. Additionally, a significant aspect of the process was nurturing and developing key individuals within the organization to ensure their growth and readiness for future roles.

The timeframe for succession planning varied depending on organizational culture and location. American companies typically operated within a four-year planning horizon, whereas in France, the planning extended up to a decade, rendering the project inherently complex.

Furthermore, an integral aspect of the process involved assessing retention risk among key personnel. Identifying and mitigating potential risks ensured that even with the right people in place, the organization remained resilient in the face of unforeseen challenges.

In essence, succession planning encompassed a multifaceted approach aimed at securing talent, addressing skill gaps, and safeguarding the organization’s future continuity and resilience.

Margaret Jaouadi
What role did you play in succession planning within your past organisations and what is your role now in Wielton?

Cezary Mączka
In global organizations like GE or EDF, the process mainly revolves around aligning corporate guidelines with local requirements. Although the essence remains consistent across regions, nuances arise due to varying legal frameworks in different countries.

The challenge at Wielton lies in building business awareness regarding the necessity of this process. As part of the strategy mandated within my initial three months, succession planning emerged as a pivotal component, scheduled to run until 2025.

While the global process I previously engaged in followed an annual cycle, at Wielton, we opted for a biennial full succession planning round. This decision stemmed from the organization’s size, aiming to avoid overcomplicating the process.

In the interim years, we conduct what we call “part succession planning,” focusing on updating data related to personnel changes or major organizational shifts without delving into detailed discussions about individuals, roles, and talent gaps.

Ultimately, the key to implementing such processes lies in fostering an understanding that it’s a business imperative rather than merely an HR function. The organization’s success or vulnerability hinges upon the efficacy of its succession planning efforts.

Margaret Jaouadi
Was it hard to convince Wielton’s leadership team?

Cezary Mączka
Surprisingly, no, I wouldn’t say that was the case. Our CEO is a visionary leader who understands the vital link between having the right people in place and achieving financial success. He recognized the need for education on how to achieve this and the necessary steps to make it a reality.

Entering an organization that isn’t as mature as those I’ve previously worked in often tempts one to tackle everything at once. However, I believe this approach can be misguided. It’s essential first to grasp the business landscape, understand the people, and immerse oneself in the company culture before implementing any strategies. This entails adapting familiar tools to meet the specific demands and expectations of the current company.

For me, it involved refining tools from the past to align with the present business context, emphasizing the importance of each adjustment and how it contributes to the company’s future growth. It took nearly three years for the CEO to decide on establishing HR at the global level, indicating a well-thought-out process.

Surprisingly, the implementation was smoother than anticipated, largely due to the existing awareness and receptiveness among my colleagues. When discussing modern approaches in HR, such as leveraging workout strategies for efficiency or implementing Six Sigma tools, there was genuine interest and curiosity. These discussions not only introduced new concepts but also fostered a culture of learning and growth within Wielton’s HR activities.

Margaret Jaouadi
Can you describe the process of devising the list of competencies that are required by the leaders at Wielton?

Cezary Mączka
I adopted a straightforward approach, focusing on key leadership competencies outlined in our existing framework, which was established by the CEO. We identified six core competencies essential for effective leadership.

Firstly, strategic awareness, emphasizes the importance of understanding the organization’s direction and the role of our department within it. Secondly, effective communication to convey this vision to our teams.

Next, empowerment and delegation, enable individuals to execute the strategy autonomously. However, recognizing that challenges may arise, the fourth competency is providing support and guidance to overcome obstacles.

Then, we emphasize continuous improvement and change management to adapt to evolving circumstances. And lastly, we emphasize the importance of personal awareness, encouraging leaders to reflect on their development and growth.

Building upon these competencies, we designed a comprehensive 360 performance appraisal system. Additionally, we created an engagement survey, tailored to each company’s native language, to gather valuable insights.

To streamline these processes, we invested in an innovative Human Capital Management system developed by a Polish startup. This platform offers a comprehensive suite of tools, including pre-onboarding, performance management, learning management, and offboarding, accessible in 19 languages.

We aim to implement this system across our Polish companies by the end of 2024, with plans to expand internationally by the end of 2025. This strategic approach ensures alignment with our organizational objectives while fostering a culture of continuous improvement and development.

Margaret Jaouadi
From your experience, how do you assess the readiness and suitability of internal candidates for those leadership roles?

Cezary Mączka
First and foremost, to be considered for the leadership succession program, individuals must have been with the company for a minimum of 12 months or have undergone at least one performance appraisal cycle.

Following this, we conduct a 360-degree assessment to gather perspectives beyond just the manager or HR, encompassing feedback from colleagues as well.

The third step involves participation in a development center, where individuals undergo further evaluation. Additionally, psychometric assessments are utilized to uncover strengths, motivations, and potential career paths, supplemented by interviews.

Once these steps are completed, we have a comprehensive understanding of the individual, with enough data to make an informed decision regarding their suitability as a successor.

Moving on to the second step, validation occurs, aligning perspectives between the business and HR. It’s crucial to reconcile any discrepancies between these viewpoints to ensure a fair evaluation.

Calibration meetings, involving the CEO and management board, provide a global perspective, mitigating divisional biases. Transparency is key during this stage to prevent favoritism towards certain candidates.

Despite efforts to maintain objectivity, biases may still exist. However, through structured processes, we aim to minimize their impact.

Finally, based on these assessments, we design development plans for everyone, identifying suitable “stretch assignments” to nurture their growth and potential within the organization.

Margaret Jaouadi
That’s a perfect introduction to the next question. What strategies do you employ to identify and develop those diverse pools of candidates suitable for future leadership roles?

Cezary Mączka
There are two crucial elements at play here. Firstly, we aim to identify individuals with the potential and talent to excel. What distinguishes one person with potential from another? The ability to be promoted not just one level, but potentially up to two levels or even to a C-suite role. There are no limits to this potential.

As I mentioned regarding past processes, a key factor is undergoing several stretch assignments to demonstrate capability in various environments. For instance, at GE, it was a rule of thumb to change roles every three years. I exemplify this policy: starting as an HR manager at a site, and then progressing to a country role with expanded responsibilities for European sales teams. Subsequently, I transitioned to corporate roles in the US before landing in the finance division at GE Capital. These shifts across manufacturing, corporate, and finance realms within the same company provided exposure to different clients, expectations, and geographies. Adaptability and a willingness to prove oneself are crucial in such scenarios.

Additionally, when assessing individuals, we gain a clear understanding of their strengths and development needs. However, based on my experience, I’ve shifted focus towards leveraging strengths rather than fixating on weaknesses, especially among more seasoned professionals. Strengthening key success factors for current and future roles takes precedence.

Furthermore, tailored development activities cater to individuals at different stages of their professional journey. Distinct training programs exist for professionals, first-time managers, mid-level managers, and those progressing toward executive leadership roles. It’s essential to recognize that competencies like communication vary in significance across different levels of leadership. Therefore, assessments are followed by targeted training, coaching, mentoring, and the provision of practical tools to facilitate continuous development and growth.

Margaret Jaouadi
What are the most common challenges or obstacles you encounter in the succession planning process?

Cezary Mączka
To begin, it’s crucial to shift the perception that succession planning is merely an HR exercise—it’s a fundamental business process, and answers like “we are too busy” are unacceptable. This necessitates creating a clear link with individual performance and incentives for managers and directors to ensure its effectiveness.

Leading by example is paramount, particularly from the top down. CEO and leadership teams must demonstrate the importance of succession planning through their actions.
Moreover, upholding the quality of the process is imperative. HR professionals must be bold in challenging the leadership, when necessary, clearly stating where the process is not followed and supporting it with examples.

Lastly, transparency and ongoing discussion are key components. Repetition of the process every second year underscores its significance, while transparent and open discussions about candidates maintain accountability. Additionally, providing follow-up and feedback to identified candidates is essential to preserve credibility and mitigate associated risks.

Margaret Jaouadi
While discussing succession planning, there’s a notion I’ve encountered suggesting that every senior leader should prioritize developing or identifying their successor. What are your thoughts on that?

Cezary Mączka
Absolutely, in an ideal world, every senior leader would prioritize developing or identifying their successors. However, this is not always that simple. I recall from my experience during the GE times, where one of HR’s key motto was to protect employees against less-than-stellar managers. This highlights the crucial role HR plays, as not all managers prioritize the development of their teams.

I often find it amusing how HR sometimes operates with a dual perspective. On one hand, we act as architects, creating frameworks and processes to guide managers. This involves educating them on best practices when they may not be fully aware. On the other hand, we also play the role of police, ensuring adherence to corporate procedures and standards.

While it’s important always to support the business, it’s worth noting that the rhetoric of “people are our greatest assets” can sometimes ring hollow compared to revenue numbers.

However, it’s the role of HR to ensure that organizations don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s the people who ultimately drive those revenue figures, not the other way around.

Margaret Jaouadi
What measures do you take to ensure transparency and fairness in the board succession planning process?

Cezary Mączka
Alright, so let’s break it down. Firstly, there’s the number of successors already identified, along with those projected to be ready in the coming years. This varies depending on the company, with up to four in the US and up to 10 in France.

Next, there’s the diversity pool to consider, ensuring a broad range of talent is represented in the succession pipeline. Additionally, we track the number of talents, monitor unwanted turnover, and identify any gaps in succession planning within the organization or in comparison to the market.

Lastly, there’s the calibration process, where input is gathered from the entire management team. This provides valuable visibility into other functions, breaking down silos and providing a clear picture of the organization as a whole.

Margaret Jaouadi
What are your views on internal versus external talent?

Cezary Mączka
When conversing with executive recruiters, this could be a tricky question… However, I’m a staunch advocate for internal promotions. Promoting from within outlines career trajectories for employees and demonstrates organizational stability. Moreover, it underscores the capability to provide interesting assignments within and beyond their current roles.

In my view, while some individuals may possess innate leadership qualities, it’s both the manager’s and HR’s responsibility to cultivate leaders within the organization. Consequently, I prefer promoting individuals internally, unless there’s a clear deficiency in technical competencies or a unique circumstance that warrants external recruitment. Ultimately, I believe a strong organization should prioritize internal talent development and only resort to external hires when necessary.

Margaret Jaouadi
In today’s AI-driven world of uncertainty, predicting future skills is tough. While I support developing internal talent, relying solely on it may overlook the fresh perspectives and competencies external hires can bring to stay agile and innovative. How do you think you can achieve this balance effectively?

Cezary Mączka
Finding the right balance is key here. On one hand, individuals who have been with the organization for a while bring invaluable experience. They understand the ins and outs of processes, products, or services, depending on the context. However, staying in one position for too long can lead to a loss of external perspective. That’s why it’s crucial to bring in fresh blood—around 40-50% from outside. Even here in Wieluń, where the company is situated in a small city in the south of Poland, this mix is vital for success. The question remains: could external perspectives accelerate the company’s growth? Therefore, it’s essential to have external colleagues whose experiences complement those of the local team, enriching the organization as a whole.

Margaret Jaouadi
Could you please share any examples of successful succession planning initiatives or best practices that you implemented throughout your career?

Cezary Mączka
Certainly, I can share my experience from my time at GE Money Bank during the merger between GE Money Bank Poland and Bank Przemysłowo-Handlowy (BPH Bank), which was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career to date. The merger created a new organization, a universal bank. I can proudly say that this transformation was achieved largely internally, without extensive reliance on external resources. Following the internally designed process, we effectively combined the expertise of individuals from various backgrounds from both organizations.

Despite the challenges posed by the 2008 financial crisis and GE’s subsequent global withdrawal from financial operations resulting in the sale of the GE Money Bank BPH to Alior Bank, our strategic decisions proved to be sound. It’s worth noting that many individuals promoted during this period now hold leadership positions in major banks across Poland. This serves as a testament to the effectiveness of our system and the calibre of individuals entrusted with key roles.

Margaret Jaouadi
And the final question: when it comes to individuals identified as future leaders at Wielton, do you keep them informed about their status, or do you continue observing and developing them discreetly?

Cezary Mączka
We don’t tell them directly, as doing so may create expectations that cannot be fulfilled. Instead, I have one-on-one discussions with potential leaders to express appreciation for their efforts and performance and to indicate our interest in investing in their future within the company. This approach serves as an indication of potential success without making explicit promises. As the American career development acronym PIE indicates, your career depends on Performance, Image, and Exposure. This creates an opportunity for advancement. Without all these elements, even the most qualified successor may not be able to ascend to that role.

Margaret Jaouadi
Thank you very much, Cezary, for this masterclass in succession planning.

For a confidential chat about how Pacific International can assist you with your Talent Acquisitions and Succession Planning challenges, please contact Sahar Akhtar or one of our Executive Search Consultants specializing in your sector.