Succession Planning: What Is It and Why?

Within any organization, people in leadership positions eventually cease to fulfill that role. This can occur for a variety of reasons, such as:

  • promotion within the organization
  • move to part-time arrangements for better work-life balance
  • voluntary departure from the organization to pursue a career elsewhere
  • involuntary departure from the organization
  • retirement
  • serious illness
  • death

Organizations that fail to plan for the timely and effective filling of such leadership roles can be caught off guard, with the consequent disruption to normal business activities and the loss of market share. Succession planning is the preemptive process of identifying significant leadership positions that could put the organization at risk if left unfulfilled, targeting current employees that could move into such roles and grooming them for succession. Managing leadership succession effectively requires a structured approach that is agreed, understood and followed by everyone involved in the planning process.

The Succession Planning Process

Succession planning requires steps to obtain leadership guidance, collect relevant information, make key decisions, and execute succession and development actions. If undertaking this activity for the first time, you should consider creating a process that is “separate” from other, related activities such as performance management and development planning. Later, after you have executed your process a couple times, you may take down the special elements and start to integrate it with these other activities. The steps below outline such a stand-alone process.

Define purpose, goals, and scope

The top leader of the organization outlines the purpose, goals, and scope of the succession planning activity.

Assemble an oversight committee

The committee’s role is to establish a succession planning process that can fulfill the purpose, goals, and scope outlined by the top leader, and to govern over the process until most of the major questions and issues have been resolved.

Set policy

The oversight committee creates policy around such issues as data security, assessment, succession nominations, communication and development.

Define operational parameters

Again, this is the purview of the oversight committee. Operational parameters include: positions for which successors will be nominated, the scope of the pool of succession nominees and the rating scales used for assessing contribution and potential.

Develop and conduct the assessment

The assessment is essential for comparing succession candidates and slotting them against specific succession positions. The assessment data, generally provided by direct managers of the succession pool, should be reviewed for equity in the ratings and for consensus in the nominations.

Compile and organize the data

The voluminous data that is collected must be compiled into the kind of information needed by leaders to make key decisions. Some of the compilations include: coded organization charts, a “contribution-potential matrix,” reports of any “at risk” positions or individuals, and profiles for all individuals and positions. A spreadsheet or dedicated tool for organizing and displaying such information is recommended.

Conduct organizational reviews

Starting with business unit/functional heads, the succession plan and reports compiled are reviewed and key decisions made. These decisions could range from developmental opportunities for future leaders to actual leadership appointments. The business unit/functional level reviews are followed by reviews at the highest level – with correspondingly higher level decisions.

Implement development plans

While succession decisions may be executed immediately after the reviews, the developmental opportunities must be pursued over the following weeks and months. For future leaders to realize their potential and be better positioned to “step up” when the time comes, these development opportunities must not be allowed to languish once the spotlight is off the succession planning process.

Assess process effectiveness

Like any other business process, your succession planning process will need to be improved, streamlined, integrated with other human resources processes and possibly expanded to accommodate additional participants. While the experience is fresh, take a moment to gather feedback and assess process effectiveness – then set and achieve the most critical improvement objectives.

Leadership Succession

When key leadership roles in your organization become available, how ready are your future leaders to step up to the challenge? World-class organizations know the importance of having top talent lined up and ready to go. The many benefits of effective talent management convey to both the organization and to the individual . . . as do the risks of failing to plan for your organization’s leadership succession.

Preparing your employees for future leadership roles consists of two activities: planning and development. Planning includes the following activities:

  • identifying employees who show potential for assuming greater responsibility
  • assessing those individuals against some kind of leadership model to understand their strengths and development needs
  • developing your leadership model – or set of models – that describe the elements of leadership critical to your organization
  • identifying the kinds of roles that will need to be filled
  • ensuring a flow of succession opportunities – even if it means removing current leaders that are performing adequately in their role

Developing future leaders goes beyond the classroom. In fact, successful leaders cite other factors besides training when asked to describe their best source of preparation:

  • stretch experiences
  • a formative mentor
  • dealing with hardship and conflict

A progressive view of leadership development will emphasize all of these strategies over a training-heavy approach. However, often an element of “divine intervention” by a development-minded CEO is needed to execute some of the riskier strategies:

  • putting an employee in charge of key negotiations with a competitor, vendor, or union
  • tapping an employee to turn around a struggling division or function
  • tasking an employee to build out a new capability, develop a new product, or enter a new market

The benefits of a thorough approach to succession management accrue to the organization as well as the individual. Organizations achieve the primary goal of having employees ready to step into leadership roles. And they avoid much of the risk linked to bringing too many outsiders into key, high-level positions.

However, not to be undervalued is the benefit felt by employees even before their opportunity emerges. These employees, who are often star performers as middle managers or even individual contributors, can too easily be attracted away by offers from other organizations. “You have to leave to get ahead” is commonly heard in organizations without a capable approach to developing and promoting future leaders. Organizations that prepare their aspiring leaders for higher levels of responsibility replace this talk with higher levels of employee engagement, retention and hope. And they then follow through with those appointments.

Gain the benefits of effective succession planning in your organization by putting in place a robust leadership succession process.

Succession Planning Program Evaluation

Succession planning programs can take many forms. Some rigorously identify specific future career moves for their upwardly mobile leaders, while others may use a more general system of leadership “turns” to be accomplished. Some may clearly publicize their succession planning process and its results, while others perform activities in the background and communicate only to those who “need to know.” The most important thing is for your organization to develop a process that works within your culture and gets the results you need. That said, here are some key questions for when you are evaluating your succession program with an eye to improvements, as well as for when you are just starting to design your own approach.


  • Does your succession planning program consistently produce a slate of qualified candidates for any given leadership position that needs to be filled?
  • Is your organization able to select internal succession candidates when desirable, rather than have to bring in outsiders with “more experience”?
  • Do newly placed (promoted) leaders feel ready and confident about stepping into the new role?
  • Do leaders placed (promoted) as a result of your succession planning process typically succeed in their new roles?
  • Do your leadership candidates typically stay with the organization longer?
  • Is your organization viewed as “the place to go” for MBAs and other aspiring, young professionals?
  • Are your future leaders aggressively recruited by other organizations?


  • Does top leadership move future leaders around to ensure they experience many parts of the organization?
  • Does top leadership aggressively “move out” incumbent leaders who are underperforming in a key role so that ready successors may be “moved up”?
  • Do your future leaders “know where they stand”?
  • Do your future leaders get the “real world” development they need to prepare them for new leadership roles?
  • Does your succession planning process operate “year round” (versus an event that occurs annually)?
  • Do current managers willingly “let go” when their staff is selected for new roles or for developmental assignments?
  • Is your succession planning process reviewed at least annually and any deficiencies corrected or improvements implemented?
  • Is your succession planning process reviewed at least annually and any deficiencies corrected or improvements implemented?

Any evaluation questions that do not receive a resounding “Yes” might provide some fodder for rethinking and enhancing your current approach. However, remember that succession planning can take many forms, and your approach needs only to work for you.


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