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Succession planning: The definitive guide

8 min read
Having a succession plan is crucial for every business – large and small. A robust succession plan means you’ll not only be future-proofing your business, but also be showing your current high-potential employees that you value them and that they have a strong future with your organization.


No matter how strong your employee engagement program is, or how positive the outlook of your business may be, people who are critical to your organization will leave.

That’s why it’s crucial to get ahead of the curve when it comes to succession planning. Especially with senior leadership or business-critical roles.

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is about identifying and developing talent so when the appropriate time comes, you’ll have the right people to fill key leadership positions. Succession planning is about future-proofing your organization in the face of skills shortages.

It’s easy to let succession planning slide. The day-to-day operations of their company are so demanding that it’s easy to put this kind of planning on the back-burner. It’s easy to forget that even if your people are 100% happy and engaged, they can become seriously ill or hurt.

If their skills are that valuable to your business, they’ll be equally sought out by your competitors too. Any of these scenarios can leave a business vulnerable. Especially if your people have short notice periods.

Ultimately the aim is to have talent lined up with the right skillset so they can fill business-critical positions quickly and efficiently. An effective succession plan will not only involve identifying the right people to pick up the mantle, but will set out to give them practical experience for these future roles. So when the time comes they’ll be prepared and the business won’t face more disruption than is absolutely necessary.

What is a high-potential employee?

According to Bersin by Deloitte, a high potential employee is someone who has the potential, ability, and aspiration to hold successive leadership positions in an organization.

What are the benefits of having a succession plan – for both employers and employees?

Having a succession plan is crucial for every business – large and small. Creating a robust succession plan means you’ll not only be future-proofing your business, but you’ll also be showing your current high-potential employees that you value them and that they have a strong future with your organization.

5 steps to develop a succession planning strategy

Step 1: Identify which positions you need a succession plan for

A first step is to identify business-critical roles for which potential successors are needed. These may be particular positions, but they could also be general areas. You should be looking to identify any role or roles that are those that are critical to the organization’s operational activities and strategic objectives, not necessarily just senior leadership roles.

Your people are your business, so reviewing talent within your organization should be as regular a part of your processes. The same as reviewing your finances.

After all, senior leadership roles aren’t the only positions which may be difficult to recruit for. With skills gaps looming, someone with specialist skills that aren’t easy to find may be crucial to the future of your organization.

Identify which positions, if left vacant, would make it very difficult to achieve current and future business goals.

As such, you may want to take one or both of these approaches. Succession planning for:

Specific positions: This focus means that typically only the most senior roles would be part of the process. And although this makes the process more manageable, it’s still important to keep an eye on roles that may be difficult to recruit for.

Pools: This strategy looks to create pools of people with specialist skills. These people won’t be in line for a specific role, but they’ll train a group of people who are adaptable and capable of filling a variety of roles.

Questions to answer

  • Which people are critical to your business; now and in the future?
  • Which people have skills that are critical to your business that are hard to find on the job market?
  • Will identifying and training successors be incorporated into your managers’ performance reviews?
  • Does your company have particular vulnerabilities, such as future skills gaps?

Step 2: Identify which people could fill these roles – and discuss it with them

Once you’ve identified the key areas and positions that are vulnerable, you need to pinpoint the candidates who are ready to advance, or whose skills and competencies could be developed within a suitable time frame.

Too often the leadership team keeps their plans secret, so that the people they’re training to take over are never aware of the plans in store for them. This creates more problems than it solves. If you don’t make these employees aware that they’re being zeroed in on greater things, they may already be looking elsewhere for their next role.

Transparency vs confidentiality

Employees need to understand the succession process so transparency in the process is important. However, succession planning is sensitive and should be treated with discretion. It has the potential to reveal confidential information about business strategy. It’s crucial to balance transparency with discretion.

Step 3: Ramp up the training and development process

Ideally, the organization will have already been investing in the professional development of all employees, but at this point, training for these specific roles should start to become more targeted.

Job rotation is a good way to help your successors gain additional knowledge and experience. Also make sure that they:

  • Have access to a mentor in the field you’d like them to grow into
  • Are aware of the skills you need them to improve on
  • Are taking part in meetings and presentations in the area they’re looking to move into
  • Have an opportunity to feedback on which areas they’d like more support with

Step 4: Stress test your succession plan

Do a trial run to make sure your plans are on the right track, rather than waiting until someone leaves.

Ask your successor to take on the role for short bursts. For example, when an employee is on holiday or off sick. They’ll assume some responsibilities, such as meetings and presentations. The employee will gain valuable experience as well as being given an opportunity to step into the spotlight.

This also helps you to pinpoint what additional training or support that person may need.

Step 5: Build your succession plan into your hiring strategy

Don’t just hire for now, hire for your plan. As valuable as your current people are, you’re not going to find all your talent inside your organization.

It’s also important to keep your organization diverse – bringing in new talent also gives you a chance to hire people with different backgrounds and fresh perspectives.

Being objective and prioritizing diversity

Succession planning committees may be helpful to make sure the people chosen are objectively right for the job. As well as bearing in mind factors such as gender, race, and background bias. They can be helpful to review and challenge decisions as well as advising on how to improve the process.

The dos and don’ts of succession planning

DON’T wait until key employees hand in their notice. Start planning now.

DON’T be afraid to bring in new people.

DON’T just plan for roles you currently have, but also those you’ll potentially need in the future.

DO focus on policies, procedures and practices, not on personalities.
Succession planning is being able to effectively and promptly fill a role, not replace like-for-like.

DO work closely with your people. It should be a partnership between management and employees to accurately define the employee’s role and current priorities.

DO hire people from different backgrounds and diverse profiles. This will bring in a fresh perspective and avoid the organization stagnating.

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