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Higher C-suite turnover and large layoffs have left organizations with leadership gaps and key roles sitting open for months as teams operate in a state of limbo, scared to go too far in one direction only for a new leader to change their course.

This often happens because organizations are underutilizing (or not using at all) a tool that could help them the most: succession planning.

What Is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is the practice of building out your talent assessment and leadership development programs along with a succession planning matrix that maps out potential successors for key positions. Put simply, succession planning is building your bench plan.

When senior leaders or other key employees leave the organization for any reason, it’s crucial to ensure that you have ready-now talent identified to replace them quickly. This is where your succession strategy comes in.

The Benefits Of Succession Planning

The benefits of effective succession planning are numerous, including:

  • Strengthening the organization’s long-term business strategy through ongoing talent analysis and alignment 
  • Minimizing upheaval in the face of change
  • Retaining institutional knowledge and leveraging intellectual capital by promoting from within
  • Fostering more capable leaders through deliberate competency development 
  • Improving the retention of critical talent by providing a clearer view of career progression
  • Improving morale through personalized career development programs

No business can ever truly be future-proof, particularly in today’s highly disruptive business and economic environment. However, organizations that continuously identify and develop their leadership pipelines are more likely to both weather and anticipate change driven by both internal and external factors.

That’s why your succession planning strategy is critical to mitigating risk and stacking the odds in favor of long-term success. 

While it’s tempting to try to build succession plans throughout your organization, it’s important to start with your critical roles.

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The Succession Planning Process

Your succession planning process should be part of an overall talent management strategy that includes a defined leadership competency model reflected in clear job descriptions as well as regular talent reviews

A conceptual drawing shows the evolution of a circle into a star.

During the succession planning process, you define and identify critical roles, assess or reassess the critical competencies for each role, identify your potential bench and their level of readiness, create development plans to accelerate readiness and hire to fill the gaps.

With an array of technology available to help you develop your succession planning acumen and discipline, it's possible for HR leaders to make succession planning a common practice all the way through the organization.

To start, it’s most important that you focus on having bench strength for your most critical roles.

Step One: Define and identify critical roles 

First, you need to identify what makes a role “critical” in your organization. Your goal is to identify those roles that, if vacant for too long, could have the most negative impact on the organization. These are the roles that have the biggest impact and are the hardest to fill.

There are two most common types of roles to consider:

  • Senior leadership roles with the biggest scope .
  • The most specialized roles that are key to business innovation or continuity.  

It makes sense to start with senior leadership positions. These roles tend to require the most diverse set of skills and experience, they are highly visible, and hard to replace. Also, it takes complex development plans to get more junior leaders ready to step into these roles.

Specialized positions can be overlooked because they may not be the most senior. Sometimes they may even be individual contributor roles. 

Think of these specialists as load-bearing employees. Their absence can result in catastrophic structural failure. When vacant, these roles are hard to fill, and development plans to get people ready often include formal education or cross-functional exposure.

Keep in mind that critical roles can come from any function or department throughout your organization. The succession plan for your critical roles will be managed centrally, often by the CHRO/CPO with support from their Human Resource Business Partners (HRBPs).

Both succession discussions and responsibilities for building the critical role bench ultimately sit with the executive leadership team.

Step Two: Assess or reassess the critical competencies for each role

Next, you need to assess or reassess the critical competencies for each role. Ideally, the job description for the role includes the competencies–technical, leadership, and others–needed. 

If it doesn’t, part of this step is going to require that you write a job description.

Even if you do have a job description, now is the time to reassess if the necessary skills have changed or evolved, particularly if you have not revisited them in the past several years. 

Some questions to ask as you review the competencies:

  • Have the core competencies changed due to a change in business strategy, industry shifts, or disruption in the global environment? What new competencies are required? 
  • What hard skills and soft skills do candidates need to have to succeed in this role?
  • Having seen how others have performed in this role, which requirements are non-negotiable? Which skills or experience are less critical?
  • Which strengths does the person currently holding the position feel are the most important to success in this role?

Step Three:  Identify your potential bench and its level of readiness 

Now that you have identified your critical roles, it’s time to start populating the bench chart for each position. As you think through potential successors, it’s important to consider their level of readiness.

Think about talent in these three categories:

  • Ready now–could step into the role immediately with a comprehensive onboarding plan
  • 1-2 years out–will be ready now in one to two years 
  • 3-5 years out—will be ready now in three to five years 

As good practice, and depending on the size of your organization, you should be striving to have at least one person ready now, two to three at 1-2 years out, and four or more at 3-5 years out at any given time.

It’s important to make sure that people you’re putting on the bench chart for specific roles actually have the ambition to fill those roles.

Just because you think someone would be great in a role doesn’t mean that they actually want to do it.

At 3-5 years out, you may have someone on the bench for multiple roles. Often the skills that you will be growing as part of their development plan will prepare them for multiple roles. 

When you get to 1-2 years out, though, the experiences on their plan should be much more targeted for a specific role.

At the ready-now stage, an individual should only be decked against one role. If they’re the sole bench for multiple roles, you actually don’t have a ready now bench for those roles because one person can’t do multiple jobs at once.

Putting the same person as ready now bench for multiple roles will create a false sense of security that you’re prepared when really you aren’t.

Once you’ve started establishing a bench for your critical roles, you can start to expand succession planning to other parts of the organization, team by team. 

The succession plan for the function or department will be managed by the senior leader and their HRBP. Discussions and responsibilities for bench building for functional/departmental bench sit with that leadership team.

Step Four: Create development plans to accelerate readiness 

Each person on your bench chart should have a development plan. The goal is to continue to have a pipeline of ready-now talent in the organization. Structure their plan based on their current level of readiness.

  • Ready now–provide developmental experiences and greater exposure (ex: opportunities to present to the board or at industry conferences; formal mentoring discussions with the CEO; support from an executive coach, etc.) to continue to keep them engaged and growing until the role is open.
  • 1-2 years out–create a targeted development plan focused on experiences (ex: stretch assignments, increases in scope, opportunities to mentor other leaders, etc.).
  • 3-5 years out–create a professional development plan that mixes formal learning, mentoring, and developmental experience (ex. classes, attending conferences, participating in company initiatives, working with a designated coach, etc.).

A bench chart is a living document, and ensuring that you always have people at every level of readiness at all times is the long game. Make it a regular practice to do the following:

  • Continually identify current employees who are bench for your critical roles
  • Assess employees based on your leadership competencies–their current level skill and their potential to develop them.
  • Have frequent conversations with each individual employee to discuss their performance, career aspirations, current career trajectory and development opportunities.
  • Collaboratively outline a career roadmap for each employee, ideally exposing them to stretch assignments that challenge them to grow beyond their current capabilities.

The development plans that you create are the fuel that ensures that your succession process is active and that your plan is not just an artifact of an administrative activity.

Step five: Hire for your gaps

Inevitably, at least as you start actively succession planning, you will have gaps on your bench chart–empty boxes where you just don’t have the talent in your organization. This is where your plan becomes a critical tool for your talent acquisition strategy.

That doesn't just mean bringing someone in from outside of the organization when you don’t have anyone in the ready-now category for a role. It means that you bring new talent on board earlier in the pipeline so you can nurture and develop them to be your organization’s future leaders.

Continuous performance management and employee development—especially leadership development—should be baked into your talent management strategy from the moment you start onboarding new hires. 

Create clear job descriptions that include skills aligned with your company competency model

Incorporating succession planning into your talent management practices and technology gives you a living roadmap to ensure that you always have ready-now leaders prepared to step into open roles. It’s the best way to ensure stability and growth for your organization now and in the future.

You should always seek to hire high-potential candidates with in-demand skill sets or experience that can contribute new perspectives. This is particularly true if certain demographics are underrepresented in your organization, and DEI-informed hiring can help correct the balance.

Keep an eye on the competition and industry benchmarks and bring in new talent for new roles and vacancies in key positions for which you don’t currently have a strong bench.

Thoughtful hiring practices will ensure that you always have a deep talent pool to draw from when you need to fill positions.

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