The Hidden Secret of Great Succession Planning

Most HR professionals should know: the secret to succession planning is delegation. (Photo illustration by

What is a good succession plan?

I find it interesting is that most companies do one of two extremes when it comes to succession planning:

  1. Nothing at all; or,
  2. A very cumbersome process with lots of documents and checkpoints for multiple candidates which never amounts to anything.

Let’s find something in the middle.

Get someone ready

Think about succession planning in its core form: How do you get someone (specific), ready to take your (specific) job? Every manager should be thinking about this.

The benefits are numerous. If you do this, as a leader you score many wins:

  • The whole organization gets more capable;
  • You have a real and meaningful way of motivating your top performers;
  • Other people see you delegating some power, so they trust you more;
  • You get to hand off some hard work that you don’t have to do personally!

3 steps to effective delegating

Succession planning is all about delegating.

As a leader, you need to make sure you have someone on your team that can step up. Once you do, you need to be prepared to delegate big, hairy, strategic stuff, not just superficial, well-contained, safe stuff.

  1. Let them practice your work

The first part of someone learning your job, is about the work. You need to give them opportunities to practice working at your level.

A lot of times we think the way to motivate our top performers is to have them work on the most fun or interesting projects. That works to a point, but it does not do anything to help get someone ready for your job.

Face it, how much fun work do YOU get to do?

You need to give them opportunities to practice the ugly, mind-numbing, heavily matrixed, controversial, boring, unsupported, failing, no-win kind of work you deal with every day when you wake up.

What is the hardest and most distasteful thing you own? That’s what you give your top performer. You give them the benefit of seeing what it is really like in your shoes.

They get to suffer like you do. But, they get to work on big stuff. They get access to your network and stakeholders. They have the chance to do something creative and heroic to get this done.

What may be drudgery for you, can be really motivating for someone who gets to step up. OK, you should probably give them a more pleasant task too, while you are at it.

But don’t shy away from giving smart people hard work. And don’t feel guilty about it. (I often did, but then realized that this was better for everybody, and that people appreciate it, not resent it, so I got over it)

2. Let them practice your relationships

The next part of getting someone ready for your job is to make sure they are practiced and comfortable with the social requirements at the next level. If they are stepping up, they need to fit in socially too.

They need to be someone that your peers want to include personally. They can’t stand out like a sore thumb as the junior person in the room who has no basis for relating to the big execs.

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You need to give your top performer a chance to practice at these relationships. Give them opportunities to present for you. Arrange one-one meetings with them and your peers. Send them as your delegate to your boss’s staff meeting when you are out of town. (Go out of town if this never happens.)

If your succession candidate does not develop personal relationships with your boss and peers, they will never be ready to step into your job. And it won’t matter because they will not be given the chance.

Unless your candidate is viewed by your boss and peers as someone socially worthy of the role, they won’t get it. So your succession planning will fail. Either you will be stuck, or the company will go outside to fill your role when the time comes.

3. Let them practice your decisions.

Okay, here is where the rubber meets the road. You need to give someone a chance to practice making the decisions that you make.

If you never delegate important decisions you are fooling yourself that you are doing succession planning. How will somebody ever be ready to take over, if you have owned all the decisions along the way? Will you delegate important decisions?

Think about the next few months of decisions you need to make. Investments, priorities, partnerships, road map choices, marketing strategies. Give your top performer the task of owning the project AND the making decisions.

Let them feel the pressure of owning the outcome fully. Let them get the experience explaining, defending, and selling their choices. Let them get the experience fixing it if it goes wrong.

Is this scary? Yes. Might they choose wrong? Yes. Might they choose better than you? Yes.

The point is, if you never let them own and make key decisions, you are cutting off the single most important training you can give your successor.

See also Let People Fail. They will never be ready for your job without this.

This article was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership blog.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at .