Leadership Skills / Change Management / Skills Gap / Workforce Development

7 tips for successful succession planning

Use these tips to build your staff development plan, and then implement it ASAP.

By Billy Hamilton, Motion Industries

The purpose of succession planning is to recognize and develop future leaders. Many companies focus on the recognition aspect of succession planning and fail miserably when it comes to the development aspect.

Do not allow yourself to fall into the succession-planning trap of developing a plan to tackle the issue, having a meeting to discuss it, and then putting the binder on a shelf until the following year. Follow the simple principles below and you can maintain a succession plan that remains relevant, prepares for the future, and guides your recruiting process to ensure success.

Start early


Do not wait until you have a crisis on your hands, such as the imminent retirement of a key leader or subject-matter expert, as you will not likely have enough time to react appropriately. Effective succession planning is a long-lead item, typically looking many years into the future to provide as much time as possible to develop a strategy to overcome any challenges that are identified.

Start simple by identifying the key positions in your company and what the projected timeline is for turnover in those positions so that you can plan years in advance for such an event. After going through this exercise and refining the identification process, work down the organizational chart to identify those employees who are at risk of being recruited away by a competitor or becoming frustrated and leaving the organization.

Involve multiple levels of management in the decision-making process


The incumbent in a position may have a preferred candidate to replace him or her, but there may be qualified candidates up or down the chain of command who are a better fit. This is especially true in larger organizations, as it becomes difficult for most middle and upper managers to have meaningful, consistent interactions with large numbers of employees in functional departments.

Frank, honest discussions during the succession process will lead to the best outcomes. Identify multiple candidates for each role to provide a robust candidate pool for the interview process when it becomes necessary to take action. The time spent in this part of the process will yield large dividends, as it charts the course for most future actions.

Look across the entire business to fill your talent pool


In addition to looking up and down a functional area, be sure to look across the breadth of your organization. Large organizations may have multiple lines of business, creating stovepipes of employees who rarely interact. It is important for cross-functional discussions to occur to bring key talent to the forefront. It is too easy to simply look at the next person in an organizational chart and decide that he or she is the likely successor.

The best practice is to have a pool of candidates who could fill the position. You can still have a likely successor, but putting all of your eggs in one basket is risky. Conducting career discussions with employees once a year is a great way to identify those who wish to advance and feel they are ready to make a move up the corporate ladder. In addition, pay attention to surprise candidates who apply for open positions within the organization. These people obviously feel they are ready to take the next step up the corporate ladder and could become frustrated if their advancement stalls. Hidden gems might be discovered during this process, which is always a bonus.

Provide learning and development opportunities


Providing these opportunities to potential successors you identify during the process is the most critical aspect of a succession plan, yet it is a missed opportunity in many organizations.

Take the time to give the future leaders of your company the knowledge and experiences they need to be successful in a larger role. Follow up each year to make sure not only that an identified successor was provided the opportunities to develop, but also that he or she took advantage of them. Employee development takes engagement and effort by the employee as well as the company. Learning opportunities can take many forms, such as an assignment to a high-profile project, inclusion in a program to present to senior management, internal and external technical training, professional development classes, and mentoring relationships with key performers.

Mentoring is especially beneficial, as the mentor often receives at least as much from the relationship as the mentee does. In many cases, a mentoring relationship re-energizes long-tenured performers who may have stalled in their trajectory. As part of the development process, provide feedback to those in development roles. They need to be involved in the process to make it work effectively.

Use leaves of absence, vacations, and key projects as an opportunity


Use these to see how an identified successor will perform in a leadership role. Doing this provides the employee with a chance to see if their skill set is up to the task in a relatively safe environment. It is akin to teaching a child how to ride a bike with training wheels attached. Afterward, sit down with the employee to identify what went well and what did not, and then develop a plan to leverage his or her strengths while working on areas of opportunity. Make sure to obtain their point of view concerning their performance to gauge how engaged they were in the process.

Develop a talent acquisition strategy


This strategy should be built around what was learned during the succession-planning process with respect to current and future skill-set needs. Early in the process, identify any needed skill sets in candidates who are in the talent pipeline. This will ensure you have the needed skill sets to fill open positions in your company and feed the talent pipeline to the top. The careful preparation an organization does on the front end makes a tremendous difference down the road after investing years and dollars developing people for key positions.

Whatever you do, do not wait to get started!


Baby boomers are retiring in record numbers and will continue to do so for another decade. If you are intimidated by the process, start small; measure the results; and then expand across the organization as you feel comfortable. Each successive iteration will become a little easier as management and employees become accustomed to having the discussions required to have a successful program. Good luck!