If you've been put in charge of succession planning, you may feel as though you're on your own without a lifeline. There seems to be a lot of information "out there," but little of it is actionable.

According to the Deloitte report Global Human Capital Trends 2016 (http://goo.gl/4cZzqw), 90 percent of companies believe that succession is a top strategic priority. That's great, except that only 14 percent feel like they have a succession plan that works.

Last year, I decided to find out why most succession plans aren't working. I interviewed more than 50 people serving as chief executive officers and human resources leaders from various organizations to discover what has worked for them and what hasn't in their efforts to grow bench strength from within. Based on their responses, I created a step-by-step guide to succession planning.

Let's Cut to the Chase

If you've spent about five minutes Googling succession planning, you will know that here is what you need to do:

  • Identify your organization's critical positions.
  • Identify those in the organization with the most leadership potential (aka "high potentials").
  • Come to a common consensus about both of those decisions in a "talent review" meeting.
  • Come up with development plans for the high potentials.


No problem, right? Well, if everybody already knows this, why do 90 percent of organizations not have a succession plan that works?

Among all the things you should and should not be doing when crafting and executing your succession plan, applying these leading practices and avoiding the most common pitfalls that I discovered through my research will best help you achieve your goals.


Create a culture of leadership development. For succession planning to have a fighting chance, it must be led by the top executive, not simply delegated to human resources. Here's why: Succession planning is a culture change initiative. If it's not a top priority to the top executive, it won't be for anyone else either.

Be clear about why you are doing succession planning. Mitigating risk if key people "get hit by a bus" may be the first reason that comes to mind, but that's just scratching the surface. Take the time to explore better, more compelling reasons to develop leaders from within and articulate them in a compelling "why" statement.

Start with simple competencies. Before you can craft a plan to develop future leaders, everyone needs to be clear on the answer to this question: What does it take to be successful here? The answer lies not in a complex competency model but in a simple set of criteria that everyone regularly refers to and understands.

Separate career-development discussions from the performance review. In most cases, the personal development plan (PDP) is the last section of the performance review. In the mad scramble to complete performance reviews, PDPs usually receive scant attention.

Take the progressive move to separate performance reviews from career-development discussions and send an unmistakable signal that your organization takes career development seriously.

Follow the critical path. For the best chance at success, organizations must complete the right succession planning activities, at the right time, and in the right order (see Figure 1).


Overburden managers with paperwork. Managers need to do the work related to succession planning. Don't make them dread it by forcing more forms on them.

Try to do too much at once. Once organizations get on board with succession planning, some get carried away thinking that they need to have a succession plan for every position.

Confuse replacement planning with succession planning. Replacement planning is concerned with finding temporary backups for key positions. Succession planning is concerned with developing permanent replacements. It's a subtle difference with massively different outcomes.

Permit unilateral decisions. Top officials who make unilateral decisions on who is to be designated as a high potential ignite a political firestorm that will inevitably result in the loss of highly talented individuals. All succession decisions should be made in a formal talent review meeting where candidates are evaluated against the same criteria.

Get hung up on personality assessments. Bad news folks: No one assessment exists that organizations should rely on to determine an employee's aptitude for leadership. Instead, allow high potentials to test-drive different leadership opportunities and assess them on real performance, not speculation.



Figure 1. Succession Planning Critical Path

Fundamentals of Talent Management

  • Define competencies.
  • Assess individual performance.
  • Provide technical skills training.
  • Formalize career-development discussions.
  • Implement internal job posting process.
  • Establish a replacement plan.
  • Build the case for succession planning.

Fundamentals of Succession Planning

  • Make leadership development a strategic priority.
  • Identify critical positions.
  • Identify high potentials.
  • Draft a preliminary development plan.
  • Confirm the players and the game plan.
  • Execute the development plan.
  • Monitor progress against goals.
  • Scale It Up.
  • Expand the scope of succession planning.
  • Focus recruiting on entry-level positions.
  • Create a custom leadership development program.
  • Use succession planning software.
  • Create talent profiles.
  • Establish a mentorship program.
  • Create an assessment center.


Source: Succession Planning That Works, Michael Timms, author.




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