Succession planning

Succession planning: Do you have an effective system?

What would you do if a key executive were to leave your company unexpectedly? What does your succession planning look like? Life is full of unexpected changes.

Maybe someone decides to retire early due to a change in health or family circumstances.

Or, maybe someone is offered a dream position in another city or country — it’s too good to pass up.

And, we all hate to talk about it, but, perhaps someone on your team dies suddenly.

Would this create havoc across the organization? How would your team carry on without the right person in that key role? How would your clients, your shareholders and other stakeholders react? And what might it cost you?

Of course, the replacement of leaders in key roles can be costly. This can be measured not only by the costs for headhunting, plus time spent reviewing CVs, interviewing and reference checking — not to mention the cost of a bad-hire now and then — but also by the missed opportunity of potential business lost when the team is left without leadership.

Not only is this uncertainty financially costly, it can also affect the rest of your team negatively. Why? Because people talk, especially if they’re wondering or worrying! When they’re uncertain, they tend to make up stories to fill the void, spreading more uncertainty that is as difficult to correct as it can be damaging to morale.

When you have succession planning in place to fill these key roles, your team won’t be trying to fill in the blanks with speculation and gossip.

Here are some steps leaders can take for effective succession planning:

Identify the key roles for the organization. Determine which vacancies would affect the organization’s objectives most and work towards having a plan for these.

Collaborate. I’ve found that engaging various leaders in this process is helpful for a few reasons. First, collaboration brings different perspectives to understanding the roles and the future candidates based on the leaders’ experiences with the various people involved. This can help to uncover candidates, both externally and internally, who may not have been considered in succession planning in the past. It will also help to understand where they are and what progress they are making in their careers.

Think long term with succession planning. I know some leaders who think about potentially replacing themselves whenever they’re hiring someone to the executive-level positions. When you think about hiring people who could eventually take over your role, you’re usually looking for folks who may not have all the training and experience, but they have the same or similar values and the motivation to do a good job. It changes your expectations and priorities (and gives you time to avoid high performers who don’t play nice with others). Of course, it’s important to remember to also hire folks who aren’t totally like you. First, because you need counter points of view at your leadership table. Second, because the company may need a different perspective than the current one, both now and when you move on.

Stay on Track. Include succession planning as a topic in the agenda at least quarterly to ensure that everyone sees this as a priority and is always on the lookout for top performers. Ongoing discussion is key, so that your succession planning keeps pace with your industry and you are always identifying quality candidates for key roles.

Involve potential internal candidates in discussions about their goals. This one worries a lot of companies. They seem to think having a conversation with internal candidates, letting them know they are being considered as future prospects, leaves people with expectations that may not be met. However, not having that conversation leaves them with the opposite expectation — if they know all good companies have succession plans and help potential successors to grow and advance, and if you haven’t had a conversation about their place in the plan, they may assume they’re not part of the plan.

When I worked in the Lead HR role for a large international retail chain, leaders would tell me that they were developing talent. I would ask, “Have you told them?” and usually the answer was no, they hadn’t told people they were considering them for promotion down the road.

I highly recommend that leaders let people know that they have noticed their engagement and talent and that they see they have high potential. When people feel they have a future with an organization, they’re less likely to leave or look for other opportunities.

Don’t assume that people feel valued. Again, people who don’t hear they have potential might be filling the void of feedback with misconceptions. This results in folks who become disengaged or feel unsatisfied with the workplace.

When you do have the conversation, discuss their career and their development for future roles of increasing responsibility, identify what they might need to achieve success and where they would like to see themselves. It’s also important to have a conversation to find out what they want. It’s no longer reasonable to assume everyone wants the next step up.

Once you know what their career goals are, you can help them to gain the experience they need to grow. This might include things like a mentor program, training, feedback and other developmental tools. (Pro tip: Set performance goals with team members you identify have potential that include tools to help them achieve greater responsibility.) Let them know they’re valued and that you see them advancing in future.

Welcome a bit of healthy competition. What do you do if you have a few good candidates worthy of consideration for one executive position? Embrace it! It’s okay if you have three candidates all vying for promotion – as long as it’s healthy competition. One organization with an opening in a VP role had three directors who were really good at what they did as well as some external candidates. As part of the recruitment process for this VP position, each candidate had to do a presentation.

When handled well and fairly, each internal candidate will know that their career path is not over with one opportunity. They will, instead, feel there are many roles for me, I am valued and I have opportunities for learning and growth to prepare me for the next level.

Be creative with skill-building opportunities. If you identify someone you think has real leadership potential but they’re in a role where they currently don’t have people reporting to them, that’s a good time to have them lead a project. That can be an opportunity for them to demonstrate and develop their potential. Watch for opportunities for career enrichment, like harnessing the power of peer learning with other leaders.

One company I worked with had a management leadership development team of MBA grads. Each MBA was assigned to a different business area within the organization where they were partnered with the business leaders. They acted as advisors or consultants who would work on new ideas with the leaders and, ultimately, on implementation. It was a great experience for them and for our organization.

Build succession planning into your planning process. Succession planning is often not top of mind because it’s not urgent — until it is. Urgency happens when someone leaves unexpectedly, causing stress for those left behind.

One organization’s approach to succession planning was to prioritize it in their planning process. After not including this previously in their strategic planning, they soon realized that they had very few high potential candidates preparing for more senior roles and few candidates identified for their top roles.
Whether recruiting from outside or from within, it’s important to have several candidates ready and willing to take on key roles when the time is right. Being proactive in preparing for a smooth transition ensures that the business can continue without a gap. Putting the time and effort in upfront as part of your strategic planning pays off in the following ways:

  • Increased confidence in the organization for all stakeholders
  • Minimum upheaval and cost due to lack of leadership or a gap in a key position
  • Increased engagement for those high potential employees chosen to participate in a custom-designed development program

Taking control of the people side of the business and planning for the future benefits everyone through increased retention and minimal disruption to the business (ideally no disruption!) when someone does leave unexpectedly.

By implementing a structured, collaborative approach to succession planning and leveraging everyone’s knowledge of potential candidates in the market and in the organization, your company can keep moving forward despite any unexpected resignations or other unforeseen circumstances.

Coach’s Questions

How would you describe your current approach to succession planning? What could you do to make your succession planning more robust? What’s the first step that you’ll take?


Cathy McConnell This week’s Coach’s Questions Blog is written by Padraig Coach, Cathy McConnell.