7 Steps to Successful Succession Planning

succession planning

Can you solve a problem even if it’s too late? 

During September 2019, I was working with a group of VPs across various marketing companies during a conference breakout session. Unfortunately, one of the leaders was in deep water. She (let’s call her Sally) currently worked on a remote team where some employees were reaching retirement. One of the employees was an important role in leading the inbound marketing efforts of the company. However, the employee was slowing down, and Sally desperately needed to back-fill before the CEO noticed. A problem in succession planning.

We were sitting around a circular table when she asked the group:

How do I do Succession Planning for the marketing position, but I have zero dollars for recruitment? 

I followed up the question asking, is anyone a good fit for the role or knows it well enough to start tackling smaller tasks?


Well, unfortunately, there is no solution here.

Sally did have any money to recruit for someone to take over and no one is ready to back fill. To make the situation more complex, she only had a month to decide. Based off the circumstance, her only option was to wait until the employee quits or is fired so she would have the money to hire someone to fill in the role.


An Unsolvable Problem

I categorize this problem as a NP mathematical problem bucket, basically no one way to solve. It’s like having a football team that has a quarterback that was going to head into retirement, but there is no backup quarterback, and no money to recruit a replacement. Yet, the coaching staff wants the next quarterback to perform close to as well without a performance drop. That situation seems straightforward to avoid, but organizations consistently fail to adapt in these situations. You cannot do successful succession planning without planning. In fact, planning is half of the word.

What steps do people need to take to prepare for succession planning? Below are 7 steps: (Note, these steps are summarized from the Society of Human Resources article Engaging in Succession Planning). 


Step 1: Do a high-level review of your ‘talent pipeline’

A ‘talent pipeline’ is the number of employees that can fill a position. A strong pipeline has several people that could fill a role. In this step, you will need to draw out the organizational chart. Essentially, all the people where you work and their relationship to one another. Each arrow refers to this person reports to this other person. After the entire organization chart is drawn, look at each person and all the arrows pointing to them. Count all the candidates that are below a role that could possibly fill in the role, and write that number next to the box. Eventually employees should have a number next to it. Now, you have a high-level view of what roles have a strong talent pipeline and others that need improvement.

So which positions are the ones that we should be considered about? That brings us to the next step:

succession planning chart

Step 2: Identify critical succession planning positions

Now that you have a clear organization chart, you will need to identify critical positions. Positions are named ‘critical’ because if that roles leaves immediately, you will be left scrambling to find someone to fit the role. These are positions that have two are less people in its talent pipeline. Note, that the entry level employees will always be critical so you can neglect those.

If you have a lot of critical positions, don’t worry you don’t have to backfill all the positions internally. We just need to first identify the red areas in the organization chart.


Step 3: Agree in-house versus out-of-house recruiting

Not all positions have to be filled internally. Some roles can also be recruited ‘out of house’. Make sure to make which ones that you will recruit out of house, you cross off the critical position. By factoring in this variable, you will have a clearer idea of where your main pain points are. For instance, Let’s say you have an accountant position that is quite technical that no one else in the company can fill. Good news is you don’t need anyone to go get an accounting degree, you know that this isn’t a critical position. You can hire a contractor to fill it if the current employee leaves.

By doing these first three steps, you can spot ‘Sally situations’ from a mile away. You know where an organization needs improvement, but how do you strengthen the critical areas? That is where talent development comes into play. The rest of the steps will focus on what do to with these critical areas to bullet proof your succession planning.

succession planning critical areas

Step 4: For each critical area, list out the business functions that need to be developed

The area between two positions is a skills gap. Visually you can imagine a bridge where one side represents a role, and the other side is where the candidate is headed. The bridge itself are the skills that need to be development. But what skills need to be developed? In order to find out for each role, write out a SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) a sheet that covers all the activities for each role. (you will probably need help for more technical positions). For each activity, write out all the skills necessary for each activity. Now compare the skills needed for each activity for a role and compared it to the other side of the bridge. By listing out the activities you can now vividly see what skills need to be developed in preparing them for the next role.

But what person is more qualified than another to fill in each role? Should we invite specific people for talent development?


Step 5: Review top candidates using a 9 performance/potential grid

Each candidate can be evaluated with a 9 performance/potential grid. This grid is a simply way to evaluate how much potential a candidate has for their next role. All what needs to be looked at is their performance and potential. The purpose of this grid is to evaluate most of the gaps of learning and how much certain people need to be developed for a position. But what is potential? This comes down to the position, industry and company. Some HR consultants base potential from attitude, others, how the employee displays leadership. Many human resource directors must put together extensive sheets to determine if someone is low, moderate or high potential. In conclusion, evaluating performance is very subjective, but the 9 performance/potential gird is a good framework.

succession planning 9 grid

Step 6: Implement succession plans for high and medium-risk roles

Now write out the difference between what skills for technical and behavioral for each role. However, when considering roles, especially moving up the organization hierarchy, there are two major variables to focus on: jobs skills and leadership skills. Unfortunately, many competent individual contributors are not fitted for management positions because they lack leadership skills. Fortunately, leadership can be developed overtime. However, many people remain at the level they are because they enjoy the work they do. When looking at what employees should be enrolled in the plan, make sure to consider their level of interest in moving in great responsibility. As a principal engineer (highest level software engineer) told me “the higher you move up in a company, the more they ask of you.” While some see movement as a negative, others thrive on growth, make sure you enroll the right employees.


Step 7: Develop a role-specific plan to help improve undeveloped skills

For the skills that need development, put together a plan that will help the employee traverse the skills bridge. Some companies make this majority each candidate can enroll in to develop their skills. In the SHRM article Engaging in Succession Planning says that the skills are usually developed in the 80/10/10 format. 80% is on the job, 10% is mentoring, the last 10% is the classroom. However, people need to have the write framework in order to develop the correct way in an organization. By adding in this development plan, you can continuously train new employees to back-fill positions.

Please note, that this step is by far the most complex and subjective out of the 7 steps. For instance, what makes a good plan, how much training does one need? What level should their proficiency be? How do you know that the candidate will be able to handle the job before they have done it? Unfortunately, these complex answers vary off from industry and situation. Designing programs should be left to the industry experts. The important notes here are if you want to have a successful succession planning, ensure you have some educational program to help your employees. You can read more at Engaging in Succession Planning

Jeff Butler

Jeff Butler Internationally respected speaker and consultant, Jeff Butler helps bridge generational gaps between Millennials and companies looking for their talent and patronage. Butler has quickly built his reputation as a memorable presenter with tangible solutions for attracting, retaining, and engaging Millennials as employees and customers. Within just the past three years, he has spoken at two TEDx events and multiple Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Amazon, and LinkedIn.


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