How to Get Your Company Succession Plan in Order (and Why It’s So Important)

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Jan 29, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

HR professionals are expected to have solid succession plans and often believe they do when they do not.

How often do we believe we created a quality plan because nobody understood or evaluated it well enough to challenge it?

This is often the case with succession plans. How often is the plan so high-level that it cannot be implemented and is therefore of little value?

Key steps to get your succession plan in order

Below are specific steps that can allow good intentions to turn into reality when you need it the most — when a key person suddenly leaves:

  • Assess your current and future needs based on organizational goals and objectives, priority programs and projects, demographics of key employees and other issues that are relevant to your organization.
  • Write up accurate and clear job descriptions for your key positions. Clearly identify and document the major challenges each position faces. Then you can objectively determine what skills, experience, innate characteristics/abilities, values and attitudes are needed for success in key positions.
  • Document the specific tasks involved to carry out the duties of the above job descriptions. Write this in plain English with graphics where helpful so tasks can be picked up quickly and accurately. Often the incumbent has these tasks “in his/her head” with nobody else knowing how to perform them. If something happens to this person, your organization may face a crisis.
  • Perform an inventory of your current workforce to objectively identify which employees have the potential to fill key roles if they become open. This combines an objective assessment of the following critical attributes: innate characteristics/abilities, skills, values, interests and attitudes. It is ideal to engage an objective outside party who does not have personal favorites or other biases that prevent objective, accurate assessment. Doing this improperly can have devastating consequences to your organization.
  • Identify individuals whom you believe have the potential to fill key positions and communicate with them to gauge interest level.
  • For individuals selected for succession, identify gaps in skills and experience that need to be addressed, document them and develop a practical plan to close these gaps. Some examples of addressing gaps include lateral moves into other roles to expand skills and experience, trading some current duties for new duties that provide needed experience, and on the job training for specific tasks. Other examples include assignment to special projects, team leadership roles and formal training and development programs.
  • Identify key positions in which there are no current employees whom you believe have the potential to fill them and would thus need to hire from the outside.  Include this information in your new hiring plans to identify new employees who could fill these gaps over time.
  • Develop an onboarding plan for what happens after a successor is named, whether through internal promotion or outside hire. Otherwise you are likely to have a sink-or-swim scenario which at best is more stressful than necessary and at worst is a failure.

Benefits of a smart succession plan

Even though the decision to execute a succession plan is usually motivated by potential future events, your organization is likely to experience benefits now. These benefits include:

  1. The ability to retain top performers who may otherwise leave due to lack of perceived opportunity to advance within the organization.
  2. An enhanced reputation in the job market as an employer who invests in its employees and prefers to hire from within.  This is a major recruiting advantage in a job market that is highly competitive in hiring top talent
  3. A means of ensuring the sustained success of the organization in a constantly changing world where key people may be gone at any time. “Bench Strength” can be critical to the success and survival of any organization.

Experiencing change in your key positions over time is almost certain to happen- often at the most inopportune time. Given the risks of not having a quality succession plan and the benefits of having one, why delay?

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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