Succession Planning

by Martin Haworth

Step 6 – getting the most from one-to-ones

It’s a fact: it is rare that organisations fully understand the aspirations of their employees. Instead, they often make assumptions about those aspirations. And this happens even in the best organisations. Rarely do employees get asked the following questions:

  • What do you want from your work here?
  • What would you love to learn more about?
  • What is your dream job?

So, you ask the relevant questions. You can do this as a set of formal interviews with every member of your team, or you can pick up the drift from employees as you go. In fact, informally often works best, because it doesn’t raise expectations like a formal interview does. But informally takes a little time and it cannot easily be created authentically if this has not been your way.

It is a further great reason to use your ability to ask questions and use your listening skills to create valuable conversations (for more, see the topics on Questioning skills and Listening skills), all the time building trust as you go.

Spending time, both informally and formally, finding out what’s really important to your people about the work they do with you sends a strong message to your team. It says that your organisation (or your business, if you own it yourself) is positively different, because you care about your people and recognise that they have the potential to deliver success. And this is something that 90 per cent, or even more, of organisations simply do not demonstrate to their people these days.

Why it matters

Building and using relationships is at the core of making succession planning work effectively for you. Apart from being the major component in any manager’s armoury, effective one-to-one relationships with everyone in the team have to be in place before the value of succession planning can be released.

The vital skill of building relationships is so important because

  • Close relationships build trust
  • As you get to know your people, you find out more about their potential
  • With trust, you can ask more
  • One-to-ones lead to a partnership relationship.

‘Discovery’ conversations

So, the conversations are in the interests of the employee and your role is to increase your understanding of their wants and desires, their hopes, their fears and their dreams about their careers and work.

These discovery conversations are simple and honest, so it will be important for you to listen hard. By asking relevant open questions to elicit information and then listening actively, you will show you are interested, encouraging your people to be as open as you need them to be and building the relationship even further for the future.

These conversations, of course, need to be in context. They are not about you at all; they are about them. So you need to ensure that you are fully attentive to them and ask the relevant questions.

Of course, the bottom line is that you are aiming to create exceptional results here, so you need to trust this process.

Taking the time to find out how you can coax the best from your people is an investment where you see the vision being delivered, yet you are also totally engaged in helping your people to get what they want from their work. Then, instead of being on different sides, your relationships with your team members become collaborative partnerships, which is much more productive.

The outcome of these conversations will be a jigsaw of possibilities that you have logged. These are the ideas, inklings and even dreams of the people who work in your team(s). You need to be able to draw these together as you consider the opportunities that the succession planning will bring into place.

There’s another important point to note here: even when you have asked the appropriate questions, you must bear in mind that your interpretation of what your people say they hope for their futures might not be completely accurate. You should be careful to avoid making assumptions. So whatever action you propose to take to fill gaps, develop people through secondments and so on, you will always need clear this with the individual before you plonk them in some unexpected role for four weeks.


Please be careful to manage expectations. If you want to retain the person’s trust, this is no place for making promises that may or may not be possible some way down the track

Make it clear that you simply want to know more about them for the future.

Step six activities

  • Build relationships steadily as you go, with an ear for the career goals of your people.
  • Where appropriate, hold more formal discussions with them, taking care to keep expectations low, promising nothing.
  • Seek to ask relevant questions so you discover for yourself what they want, stimulating their own thinking in the process.
  • Follow up the conversations informally, to show that your truly care and also to provide the opportunity for them to ask additional questions of you.

Now it’s time to make real progress with your people, by helping them see the way forward, formulating their own plans for action, so they are motivated and take ownership of their own development.