Succession Planning: Keys To Successful Outcomes
Shawn Hempel/

Keys To Successful Succession Planning 

Britain’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) defines succession planning very succinctly as:

“…the process of identifying and developing potential future leaders or senior managers, as well as individuals to fill other business-critical positions, either in the short- or the long-term.”

It does not matter, therefore, which line of business you are in –government, education, health care, not-for-profit charity–, you need to plan for succession; because if you do not, there will be a leadership vacuum someday, and that could be disastrous for the organization!

Succession Planning: Process

So, how does one go about planning for succession? Well, most large organizations have their unique philosophies for doing so. Several Human Resource departments have developed proprietary methodologies for succession planning.  However, the generic succession planning process involves the following 5 steps:

  1. Identify key leadership positions. 
    These are the ones for which you need to identify successors.
  2. Identify future vacancies for those roles. 
    When, or how, would succession vacuums occur (retirement, promotion, end of contract, sabbaticals, medical-related reasons, etc.).
  3. Identify staff who could potentially fill those roles.
    Who, amongst existing staff members, would likely best fill a future vacuum in that position.
  4. Conduct gap analysis.
    Assess what potential candidates can do today, and what they need to do in the future role; and ensure there are plans developed to equip those future leaders with the necessary training, skills, experience etc. to step into the roles when needed.
  5. Review this strategy frequently and change (names, designations etc. of vacancies, and potential replacements) to reflect new realities.

The main objective of having a succession plan is that the organization is always prepared to fill in a top-level executive vacancy – regardless of when or how it occurs.

Succession Planning: Options

Like the personalized succession planning processes alluded to earlier, the options available to prepare prospective candidates for succession are also varied. However, which options are preferred depends entirely upon the results of Step#4 in the planning process – gap analysis.

The function of the gap analysis is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of all of the candidates identified as potential successors. Most importantly, this step seeks to highlight significant gaps that future successors may have, in terms of training, skills, experience, personality traits and other factors, that may impede their ability to succeed in the new role.

Following a detailed review of the gap analysis, succession planners should be able to produce a personalized developmental plan for each potential successor. This personal plan may include any/all of the following components:

  • Training.
    Including formal and informal, in-house and off-site training for the new role. Other forms of training, like eLearning, mobile learning, and blended learning should also be considered.
  • Mentorship.
    Incumbents mentor potential successors for a set period of time, and then evaluate their suitability to succeed them.
  • Shadowing.
    Being part of the incumbents daily routine gives the prospective successor “real world”, hands-on experience of his/her new role.
  • Participation in developmental activities.
    These may include temporary promotions or stretch assignments. If real developmental activities are not available, eLearning simulations can be considered instead.

A key point to note here is that while training is a very crucial component of succession planning, it should not be the only option. Training, regardless of its intensity and comprehensiveness, can only prepare candidates to a certain degree.

Besides, most training programs give students theoretical preparedness, even if it is carried out in life-line simulated environments. Senior-level positions often require real-world, hands-on preparedness to guide the organization in the long run.

Therefore, in order to be truly effective, a good succession plan should consider several or all of the above options to fill gaps in a potential successor’s knowledge and skills.

Weighing The Need For Transparency

A common dilemma for succession planners is: When should news about the succession planning process be shared with middle or lower management? Ideally, planners must consider the benefits of being up-front, open and transparent about the ongoing succession planning efforts; versus the potential drawbacks.

  • PROS:  Why tell employees about ongoing succession planning initiatives? 
    • Sharing information about an ongoing succession planning initiative early in the process helps build trust between company senior leadership and middle-management.
    • Being transparent gives middle-managers the ability to filter information appropriately when communicating it to the rank-and-file.
    • Transparency makes it easier for everyone to focus on doing “business as usual”, without having to “interpret” what every management directive or communication means.
    • Openness about succession activities increases trust and loyalty to the firm amongst potential successors.
    • Transparent communications help stop rumours and half-truths from starting to swirl around – not only that it’s bad for the company, but it can also sap morale at all levels in the company.
  • CONS: Why you shouldn’t share ongoing succession planning until its finalized? 
    • Despite best intentions, messaging about the succession plan could be miss-interpreted, leading to even more confusion and chaos.
    • Being transparent could lead to immediate dissatisfaction amongst those who were not successful or not chosen to fill vacant positions – they could deliberately harm the company.
    • Once succession plans are communicated, potential successors may now feel undue pressure, which could impact their day-to-day performance to keep business-as-usual.
    • If leaked too early, competitors may start poaching existing talent, which may create additional challenges for the company to deal with, especially in the midst of trying to fill senior roles.

When deciding upon whether to be transparent about an organizations succession plans, corporate culture plays a big role. Often, in institutions with strict hierarchical structures, such as military, transparency is practiced on a “need to know” basis.

Democratic institutions, like charitable organizations, hospitals, and private companies might find that being transparent early in the succession cycle will be much more rewarding in the long run. However, succession planners must put appropriate mitigation strategies in place to address all of the cons (messaging, disgruntled employees, business continuity during transitions, risk of talent poaching) that arise from being transparent.

As I have already mentioned above, while training is not the only component of the succession planning program, it is certainly a crucial part of it. Therefore, if you want to learn more about designing effective learning experiences for your succession planning program, please check out the Instructional Design for eLearning: Essential guide to creating successful eLearning courses book. This book is also available in Spanish.