Succession Planning Best Practices

A graph with trees growing up the top of it.
by Deborah Bell

As Vice President, Consulting, Deborah conducts assessments, manages consulting projects, and designs and delivers custom solutions. She enjoys building relationships with her clients and uncovering their needs so she can serve as a trusted adviser and business partner.

Succession Planning isn’t easy.  But it also isn’t rocket science.  By following these Succession Planning Best Practices, you can get started today and confidently get others on board with making it a strategic priority. 

Communicate Transparently

Succession Planning shouldn’t be kept a secret.  Ambitious people want to know that there is a path to advancement.  Not surprisingly, research shows that being open and transparent about it results in increased retention of high potential talent.  

Assemble Diverse Succession Planning Committees

Succession Planning isn’t an “HR activity.”  So, you need to find a diverse group of senior leaders from HR and across the business who understand the importance of succession planning.  Look for leaders who have taken the initiative to groom their successor, develop their direct reports, and mentor others.  Also, be purposeful in inviting leaders who represent diverse groups, advocate for inclusion, and bring different perspectives.  

Identify Business Impacts

One major reason to engage in succession planning is to avoid negative business impacts when a key role is vacated unexpectedly.  Business impacts can be operational, tactical, or strategic in nature.  Think about what risks you want to AVOID at all costs.  What metrics or outcomes would cause the most disruption to your business, either immediately or longer term?  

Prioritize Mission Critical Roles

Start by looking at your org chart.  Discuss which roles, if they became vacant, would have the biggest negative impact on the business.  Circle these in red ink.  If there are still too many roles to deal with at one time, then discuss who could do parts of those jobs temporarily, until the role was filled.  If there is no one with both the time and expertise to do so, make these your top priority.  

Identify Critical Competencies

Facilitate a visioning meeting with senior leaders of the business units of the mission critical roles.  Clearly define the technical competencies that will be required for success in specific roles.  Additionally, identify core non-technical competencies that are transferrable across roles.  These should align with your strategy, vision, and values.  Read about how to develop a competency model here.  

Once you’ve defined the transferable non-technical core competencies, evaluate your internal L&D capabilities for developing them.  Where gaps exist, create a plan to fill them. This may include in-house instructional design, engaging consultants, or utilizing external resources.

Conduct Talent Reviews

If you already have a talent review process in place, you are one step ahead.  If you don’t, there’s no time like the present to start them.  This annual process puts structure around discussing talent, to ensure that everyone is given “air time” (not just those who are favored by their supervisor).  It brings multiple people together who have observed the individual and can offer their input, insights, and ideas.  Discussions center around not only what the person has done, but what they could likely do in the future, with proper development.  Your list of potential successors will be a natural outcome of your talent reviews.

If you don’t have talent review data to work with, the succession planning committee can still gather input from multiple sources to determine a list of potential successors.  

Identify Multiple Potential Successors

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  If a sole successor leaves, you are back to square one.  Have at least 2, and possibly 3 people in the pipeline for each critical role.  Keep in mind that they can be at different levels of readiness (i.e., < 1 year, 1-2 years, and 3-5 years), so you should be looking 2 (or even 3) levels down, depending on the role.

Talk to Your People

Don’t assume that everyone wants to be a successor.  Talk to each person about what they enjoy doing, what they find fulfilling, and what they don’t want to do in the future.  Ask about their career goals and let them know that they are valued and their job is safe, even if they don’t want to advance.  For those who aren’t interested, find ways to enrich their work so they can continue to learn, grow, and add value.  

Assess Potential Successors 

Past performance is not the best predictor of success in the next level up role.  In fact, it’s common for top performers to struggle once promoted.  That’s because it’s hard for people to distinguish performance from potential.  So, performance is used as a proxy for potential and that’s a big problem.  

Fortunately, there are reliable and accurate ways to measure potential.  Specifically, the best way to measure potential is with objective assessments that are grounded in psychometric testing and conducted by psychologists.  Objective measures of cognitive ability, the Big Five/Five-Factor Model of personality, and Leadership Style should be included, as each of these is predictive of critical outcomes and performance in leadership roles.   

The outputs of the assessment should include ratings on the critical competencies that you identified for each role.  This will allow you to determine which areas are in need of development.  

Using objective assessments also helps to break down barriers of entry for people who have historically been under-represented in leadership roles.  And, organizations that have more diversity in leadership roles are more innovative and have stronger business results.  

Still, the objective assessment should not be the only factor you consider.  Past performance, 360-degree feedback, self-awareness, a continuous learning orientation, and receptivity to feedback and coaching should also be part of the equation.  

Develop Everyone Assessed

Remember, the assessment results do not negate what the person has accomplished or can continue to do well to serve your organization.  So, it’s important to find appropriate and meaningful opportunities for everyone you assessed to grow and contribute.  

One of the deliverables from the objective assessment should be a developmental report that is given to the individual.  This will help them to uncover hidden strengths and reveal blind spots that can be addressed through development.  The report also provides practical tips and a structured process that will help them continue to grow.  Thus, it can serve as a powerful tool to support their success and show that you are invested in their career development.

Of course, you will probably want to invest more in people with higher potential.  These individuals may be given a mentor, an external coach, stretch assignments, and a more detailed development plan with short, mid, and long-range goals.   

Debrief with Everyone Assessed

Telling someone that they are not going to be groomed as a successor is the most difficult part of the process.  But it needs to be done in a timely, candid, and compassionate way.  Be honest about the inputs that were considered and explain why they were not identified as a potential successor at this time.  Be sure to convey that they are still a highly valued team member and that you are committed to supporting their growth and development.  Follow through on providing that support and find ways to keep the person engaged. 

When debriefing with those who are being groomed for succession, do not promise that the role is theirs.  Convey confidence in them, but also be clear that progress toward their developmental goals will be a key factor that will be considered when the seat needs to be filled.

Proactively Recruit 

You will not always have three, two, or even one strong potential successor for every critical role.  So, when the bench is shallow, take action.  

First, identify the roles that serve as a steppingstone into the mission-critical roles.  If there are vacancies, assess for advancement potential in the hiring process.  And, let it be known that your organization has a formal succession planning process, as this will draw in high potentials.  

Second, consider if you can make a business case for creating a new role that would lead into a mission-critical role.  This can often be done during an organizational or departmental restructuring, or when new business goals are established for the year.

It’s Not a One-and-Done Activity

Succession planning works when it is treated as a cyclical process.  Depending on the size of your company, the number of roles you’re dealing with, and your retention and turnover rates, conducting a review every 1 to 2 years is best practice.   Throughout each cycle, you should be gathering and analyzing metrics to evaluate how it is working.  Learn more about succession planning metrics here.

Final Thoughts

Remember – these are Succession Planning best practices.  If you’re just starting out, don’t think of these as “must haves” or try to build the perfect process.  Over time, you will learn what you need, what works, and what doesn’t work for your organization.  And every year, you will get to make improvements based on those lessons learned. For now, you just need to do one thing – get started! 

Learn about our Succession Planning consulting and assessment services.
Psychometric Assessments
by Deborah Bell

The Jangle Fallacy: Is "learning agility" next?

The concept of the jangle fallacy¹ has been around for almost 100 years, but it seems like we keep falling victim to it.  For those not familiar, it is a mistaken belief that two constructs are different because they have different names, when in fact they are the same or almost identical concept.  It had […]

Read More
Big 5 personality traits
by Deborah Bell

Building High Performing Remote Teams

Some people are naturally wired to thrive in a remote role. Others are less well-suited, and many will need support from their leader to do their best work.  That’s why it’s essential to know how your candidates and current team members are wired, and how your leaders are leading. In this article, we explain the 6 Cs […]

Read More