Getting Started on Succession Planning

Andy Davies shared an article taking stock of succession planning as a tool for developing leadership, rather than the whole workforce.

It makes sense of course, that Succession Planning first identifies and develops future leaders and senior managers, because in most companies they are identified as the primary engines on which the business runs. Just as the adage runs “people leave managers, not companies” it would be wrong to understate how important it is to identify and encourage new leaders in your company to rise to prominence to allow the company to continue to exist (and change!) as time marches on.

But as important as leaders are, the skills we are learning as employees are becoming second place to our investment to the company and the attitudes we display: our professional credibility, and both motivation and morale are critical components in bringing our jobs to a higher level of quality.

It is not so strange that the focus of HR is drifting to a more encompassing model.

In olden times, HR used to focus on employees as “cogs in a machine”. In this model, people were easy to replace with anyone matching their education and skill set; the primary drivers were the costs involved in recruiting. This was gradually replaced through a skill- and talent system by an HR methodology where HR is the coach and supporter of people, and development and attitude are encouraged. Primary drivers today are employee satisfaction, productivity/sustainability and potential.

But those drivers demand more attention than a one-time recruitment effort. Even beyond onboarding and yearly performance reviews, it requires check-ins, an open feedback culture, focus on professional excellence and acknowledging people’s needs and desires when it comes to personal growth and development.

Suddenly, it seems crazy not to take into account that these people, whom you invested so much time and effort in, could need replacement – or become a replacement.

Leaders do not develop out of nowhere. People grow up in the company. People recruited at a young age may turn out to be much more talented than anticipated. Someone previously content with staying in the shadows might grow to become a key player in their department. People’s involvement with charities and public causes might shed positive (or negative) light on your company.

If you want to be involved and proactive when it comes to these traits and actions, you want to also extend your succession planning beyond management and leadership to everyone else in the company.

First Step: Acknowledgment

If you have read this far and say “I think I need to have succession planning become a more integral part of how we gather and use our HR knowledge” then you’ve already taken the first step to implementing it.

Should you already have a succession planning in place for your (executive) management, then extending it towards other groups should not be a difficult task. The key here is to take this project with the gravity it deserves, and not rush into things. If you communicate these intentions with departmental management and get them on board, things will get much smoother.

Topics to discuss here will be:

  • Benefits of succession planning (lower recruitment costs, faster response to people leaving, more opportunities for colleagues, better productivity and morale)
  • Additional work on their part (check-ins, capability analysis, detecting and reporting people leaving or “checking out”, knowing people’s talent and ambition)
  • Legal requirements (databasing, anti-discrimination)

2nd Step: Vote of Confidence

This part is easily skipped but is of critical importance. After management is on board, make sure that you have enthusiasm from the people affected by this change. People need to feel that they are valued and consulted, so make sure that you are aware of how people feel about succession planning and that they will support it.

After all, while you might think no one could object to being considered for this, it also represents a significant increase in the amount of scrutiny you place on people, and that can be a scary prospect. Likewise, you need to be sure to regularly update your information, because people would not appreciate being judged on data that is years old and not relevant to their current skill, ambition or career plans.

Best of all would be to get people activity contributing to their managers’ knowledge and succession plan. In doing so they can lift some of the weight from their shoulders as well as show their needs and desires in a clear and open way. Fostering a culture where feedback and ambition are encouraged goes a long way to make succession planning a valuable asset rather than “management interference”. Some people want to do their job and not get involved – you should leave room for that as well.

Last Step: Waterfall Implementation

Considering the size of a company, it might be sense not to implement it all at once, but to go layer-by-layer. Such a phased approach allows you to gently ease people into it, solving problems and addressing issues as they come along.

Change, for better or worse, is a rocky boat. No matter what you are doing, it’s going to have effects on people and you can get people complaining, opposing or sabotaging your efforts. Going slow and steady, communicating well and measuring progress in a smart way will go a long way to reduce the stress incurred by bringing this concept home. Involve people and give them ownership of their section of the process to get people’s goodwill, and make sure that people see the positives. If negatives arise, address them and find ways to mitigate them.


Succession Planning as a tool to smooth the changes in the workforce as people become more mobile will help your company to save money, or even exist, in the years to come. The larger your company, the greater the return on investment will be if you analyse and invest accordingly. If you already have a succession planning system, expanding it should be possible. Smaller companies might take a more organic approach, but even here there is greater value in a structured and fact-supported way of determining succession, recruitment and exiting.


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