Communicating a Succession Plan: Why You Need to Do it Early & Often

Article main image
May 24, 2011

You’ve felt that pit in your stomach before.

A division manager walks into your office, closes the door, and sits down abruptly. You turn your attention from whatever task you were working on to the manager. They tell you that one of their employees is leaving.

You know this employee well because the division manager has been talking to you about them for more than a year. You have a senior manager who will be retiring in six months and you were hoping to put the (now soon-to-be former) employee into the senior manager role.

The only problem? Nobody ever told them.

A common issue

It happens all of the time at almost every company that I’ve been a part of or known through working with them. They have identified talent and developed a plan for how succession works, but when it comes to telling the person in question, things get caught up in the fray.

Communicating a succession plan can be tricky, because there is a great deal of nuance with it. There is a possibility that a person may not want that position you have them targeted for. Or, there could be some performance issues if a person takes their ascension for granted. And, there is the risk that they may leave your employ anyway, even if they do agree with the succession plan you have for them.

But all of that can be mitigated (at least somewhat) by open and frank communication. Talking to the employee about their own plans and confirming that they are still on board does a much better job than hoping that they may stay without any communication at all.

A common situation

What brought this up today is that someone I know recently gave notice. After they gave notice, they found out that a colleague was going to be moving up and they were penciling them in for that position. This person knew nothing about the colleague moving, nor of the company’s plans to move them into that position.

Of course, this would have changed the situation drastically. The person I know had wanted to move into that position and thought it wasn’t an option after their last job-related discussion. So when a position outside of the company came open that was a step up, they took it thinking it would be a better option over the long term.

When the person found out about the unknown succession plan, it was frustrating. For one, they may have made the decision to stay. And they interpreted the lack of communication about the succession plan as a lack of respect, as if their employment was taken for granted and that there was no risk of losing them.

Preventing succession plan hiccups

If you have succession plans of any kind (formal or informal), it makes sense to get as much out of them as you can. While I won’t go over how to develop succession plans here, I will tell you how to manage them once you have them in place.

  1. Communicate initially – Retention is a daily effort. It means every day you don’t communicate with your employee is a day they could be thinking about or looking for something else. Even if you don’t have a great plan or something formal yet, communicate with them and tell them that it is informal but the thoughts are there.
  2. Create a living framework – Obviously new things come to light. People move elsewhere, their performance or ability changes (or is better evaluated) and companies change directions. Letting people know where they stand in the organization (and what their future prospects are) is better for the health of the company.
  3. The one boss problem – If there can be only one boss and there are multiple talented people available, there may be a temptation to avoid the issue of succession until it becomes an issue. Don’t do it. If your company is big enough, there may be opportunity elsewhere for your talented employees. Or you can help them get to the next level and then help them move on when they’ve outgrown their position (and hopefully trained their protege).
  4. Don’t paint yourself into a corner – Managers often feel trapped by a succession plan once they put it out there. Employees need to understand that while you want them in that position, things could change if their performance doesn’t fit or the company changes direction. They have to feel confident that you will be honest in your assessment of performance and communicate any changes as soon as you are aware of them for this to work.

The one thing I can’t stress enough is that you have to make the effort to talk to the employee as soon as you know. The consequence of not doing that is possibly losing critical people right before you need them. And when that happens simply because you didn’t communicate what you already knew, that’s a completely preventable mistake.

Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!