succession plan

Creating a succession plan doesn’t have to be overwhelming

Successful succession planning requires more than a cursory glance at who could fill key leadership posts.

Ideally, succession planning will be an ongoing process to identify (and guide, coach and mentor!) prospects for a wide variety of vacancies across all levels of the organization.

When there are other pressing demands, it can be challenging for leaders to find the time or for HR managers to convince leadership to make succession planning a regular conversation and focus.

Pro tip: If you need to build a business case for succession planning that addresses common barriers, we’ve got that ready for you.

There are some guidelines for creating a succession plan that will make certain that your organization identifies potential successors and takes steps to ensure they aren’t just qualified and skilled, but experienced and ready to confidently take over when called upon.

How to get started creating a succession plan

Establish the succession planning team: Who is going to be at the table regularly? Is there anyone missing? Most organizations involve the leadership executive and human resources, bringing in more junior managers from various departments as necessary. The most robust succession plans are created as a company-wide initiative, not left for HR to handle alone. Management support, input and accountability are necessary.

Set regular times for succession planning: Pick a time that works for everyone – and make it clear that this is a priority not to be bumped or deferred again and again and again. You don’t know when someone in a key role will leave unexpectedly, get sick and go off on an extended leave – or suddenly pass away. To be ready for worst-case scenarios, your succession planning must be a priority so that you are prepared to fill vacancies as they arise with good candidates.

Identify key roles to consider: Start with the most important for day-to-day operations. This is not just executive level positions but other “anchor” roles across the organization and among all departments. Start with the current organizational structure and then consider the future organizational structure. What changes are expected? What could happen? Confirm current job descriptions and keep them updated.

Document the succession plan: Careful documentation as this dynamic and ongoing succession plan unfolds is important. It helps leaders and managers to communicate about the plan clearly and to evaluate the success of the planning regularly. For example, if prospective successors were identified and decisions were made about mentoring and education, how have things progressed? Actionable steps can be revisited and assessed. In some rare cases, a well-documented succession planning process is also beneficial if an organization is ever accused of unfair practices.

Things to watch out for when creating a succession plan

Be realistic: As you discuss various roles, consider the actual requirements. Many times folks will talk about the ideal qualities for the job tasks and lose sight of what is essential to success in the role within the organization. We often see that people who are good at building X are rewarded with a promotion to a leadership role where they no longer ever build X – rather their days are filled with people problems and managing others who now build X. So, define the competencies. What’s unique to your company for this role? What does it take to lead the people who are on the team currently? Has anything changed? Consider advancements in technology, new developments in the industry at large or new responsibilities that could arise. This helps to identify possible successors who will be ready now and moving forward.

Plan for more than executive level positions: While keeping the C-suite spots filled is critical, it’s important for organizations to plan to backfill the other positions under the executive level as well. It’s helpful to be ready to fill any gaps all the way up the ladder and it also allows the succession planners to become more aware of junior team members who have the potential to someday take on bigger and bigger roles. Be strategic about identifying any vacancies that would make achieving current or future goals difficult. Remember to consider key roles in all departments, including administration, IT, marketing and accounting – and especially any roles that require niche qualifications or skills that would make recruiting new candidates a challenge.

Look for values that align: It’s easy to get caught up in skillset or ability, but good successors are going to have values that align with the corporate culture. Look for candidates who will bring with them the attitude and leadership style that the organization values and that will move the organization forward by continuing to motivate and support the team. (Remember that when personal and corporate values don’t align or when high fliers can’t play nice with others, it can be very demoralizing.)

Determine more than one successor per role: For some reason, many organizations will identify just one successor for each key role. But what happens if that person suddenly announces a move to another city or is gravely ill? Instead, identify a pool of candidates for every role – not only does that ensure you have a Plan C ready if Plan B goes awry but it also avoids the impression that there is only one possible successor. Why limit developing talent? A robust and highly skilled team will give you options to pick the best candidate in future.

Establish ways to mentor successors: Build in ways for the candidates you identify to build on their existing skills and leadership qualities. This includes mentoring with the folks they could be replacing someday so they have adequate time and opportunity to learn the ropes. It also includes opportunities to lead, ways to delegate effectively, how to make good decisions and learning the tools to resolve conflicts in productive and healthy ways. Integrating successors has to start years before they move up so that they understand the role, know the clients or stakeholders and can confidently handle the processes and responsibilities.

Communication is essential during succession planning

Clear and open discussion at the leadership level: It’s important that decision makers collaborate and have candid discussions about the succession plan. We know healthy conflict allows for really good discussions that delve into conflicting ideas and explore various options. This allows for the succession planners to consider unconventional candidates or outliers who might otherwise never be put forward for new or varied opportunities.

Ongoing conversations: Succession planning isn’t a one-time conversation, it’s a plan that evolves as people move and grow and needs change. For it to be successful, communication has to be regular and ongoing, keeping pace with developments in your organization. As a general rule, don’t go more than half a year without, at least, glancing through the succession plan. It’s important to review changes to roles and responsibilities, as well as to re-evaluate potential successors as folks have opportunities for professional development. Are they ready? What was successful? What needs work? What new challenges do various departments, the market or your industry face? It’s wise to plan for what-if scenarios.

Transparency with team members: An effective succession planning strategy includes discussions with potential candidates. It shouldn’t be kept a secret! Leaders may hesitate – and understandably. They don’t want someone to think they’re heir to the throne – nor do they want other team members to give up hope or feel slighted. Good communication means that someone is talking with candidates about their personal goals and letting them know they do have opportunities for advancement in the future. It also means that people in key roles know they are training successors for some day in future and not because you’re pushing them out early.

Ways we can help with succession planning

At Padraig, we can help organizations plan and implement succession planning in a number of ways:

  • We have developed extensive and highly successful leadership development programs to prepare staff to lead and manage. These include:
    • The Network – a year-long comprehensive leadership learning program for those aspiring to management roles and those relatively new to management. The program requires about one day per month of work and delivers enormous return on investment. We offer the program publicly starting two times per year and we can offer it in-house to your organization any time you wish.
    • The Partnership for more experienced managers and leaders who want to deepen their skills, work with a coach and build a network of like-minded peers. This bespoke program of only 6 leaders or fewer per cohort is far less costly than you might think.
  • We also deliver all of our one-day leadership workshops for our client organizations either virtually or in-person.
  • We offer a number of assessment tools including custom 360 assessments to help measure the competencies you’re looking for.
  • And we have a team of highly trained and skilled coaches, who were once managers, leaders and executives themselves, to lead our programs and to coach your leaders and future managers. Reach out for a chat – there’s no obligation and we strictly, absolutely, do NOT try to sell you on anything. We want to have a conversation to understand your business and to figure out if something we do might be helpful for something you do.

Coach’s Questions:

How do you currently approach succession planning? What could you do to make it more successful? What are the first three things you’d like to change?