Succession Planning

by Martin Haworth

In a nutshell

1. Where do you want to be?

You need to know where you want to be, to make sure that you get there. In a succession planning context, your vision for a great future requires you to focus on what it will be like when the following things are happening:

  • There is ongoing development of people in the workplace
  • There is always experienced cover for all eventualities
  • Each key member of the team, including the manager, delivers their own role well
  • There are generously-shared skills throughout the team
  • Coaching conversations happen naturally


2. Your most effective structure

Is the way your business or team operates adequate to achieve what you want in the future? Getting the desired core structure right, while setting aside consideration of the personnel you have now, will identify any potential changes that will need to come over time.

  • Consider how well your existing structure works for you right now.
  • Does it meet the needs of your business vision?
  • Then, think ahead for the longer-term – will it be appropriate for the best performance?
  • If the answer is yes, make a note of what is good about the current structure and stay as you are.
  • If there are changes that need to be made, understand exactly what these changes are and take note of them.
  • Discuss your thinking with your key people, taking care to engage rather than raise fears.


3. Where are you vulnerable?

Every business has roles that are likely to be more vulnerable than others, and it’s important to understand where those places are.

  • Take a look at your team and identify which roles appear to be most vulnerable.
  • Be prepared to dig deeper to analyse what would happen if any member of your team left – immediately, even.
  • Once you are clear on these in your own mind, ask around – who do others think is critical around here?
  • What issues do key people have, such as long-term or regular absence, family problems or potential departures?


4. Where are you right now?

Finding out where you are starting from is always a good way to help you get where you want to go, so being really precise and honest here is the best tactic.

Inevitably there will be issues you face now, as well as those that loom ahead. By getting at this detail now, you will ensure that the steps you gradually take in your succession planning activity are the ones you actually need.

To be complete in your assessment of your current status, you need to find out – with ruthless honesty – who and what the people and performance issues are. It’s time to recognise that as you gradually progress these issues will need to be resolved, however unpalatable that might appear to be. Identify

  • The gaps in your current team
  • Gaps you can expect and even not expect
  • Any performance issues that, if you are honest, are not good enough
  • Any personal sensitivities that you have in dealing with these issues


5. Keeping your people informed

Imposed change is of concern to most people. If you fail to let your people know what is going on you are more vulnerable to disinformation, which can derail your succession planning progress.

By informing, it’s possible to get more input to succession planning ideas and activities you are developing.

  • Start talking about succession planning informally to your key people and get their feedback.
  • Brief everyone in the team with the positives and value from which you and they will benefit as the activity gets under way – leave no-one out, however remote they might seem to be.
  • Generate a ‘way we do things around here’ mentality that everyone buys into, doing this by the way you communicate on every level with your people, in groups and when you are one to one.


6. Getting the most from one-to-ones

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.

  • 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.


7. Development plans and actions

Now it’s time to put into place the steps needed to progress towards the succession planning outcome that will benefit you, your organisation and your people.

  • Identify potential individuals from your team who might benefit from additional development activity to prepare them for roles that might be vulnerable.
  • Focus on ‘what’ you need and be creative about finding the ‘who’.
  • Create a simple development plan, possibly outside any existing frameworks that you have for these individuals, asking for their input where this may be of value.
  • Trial some experiences for these key people to develop them, noting any fine-tuning required to help them to do even better in the future.
  • Involve them in their development and, above all, ensure they take most of the ownership.
  • Utilise the skills of other key people to get them involved too.
  • Every quarter, review these actions with other key team members to assess whether value has been added by these development activities.
  • Create longer-term plans for as many individuals as you can appropriately manage while you skill up your whole workforce
  • Learn and review as you go, allowing progress to evolve.


8. Recruitment principles

By being focused on matching the right people to your key roles from the start, you are likely to create positive results.

Consider your recruiting processes and their success or otherwise in the past.

Decide what drove you to make decisions in the past and adjust, wherever possible, to be role focused.

What steps can you take to be even more accurate in those you recruit, especially for key roles?

Remember to recruit to the criteria of the role, not the person.

Where recruiting has been a challenge, what can you do to be more creative in how you find the right people?

Identify three additional roles for those your recruit from now on, at whatever level, and see, informally, how they measure up against bigger criteria and competence.


9. Regular fine adjustments

As you progress this succession planning activity, be prepared to fine-tune and adjust as you go along. Plans don’t always come to fruition, because life frequently throws up unexpected circumstances.

There are two aspects to this: firstly, plans may change because of unexpected shifts, so events don’t turn out as you expected, and secondly, the actions you take don’t always work as you hope.

  • For each step you take, create some time to analyse how successful it was.
  • Be honest and ask ‘What went well?’ so that you appreciate the value of the successes.
  • Be equally honest and ask ‘What was really challenging?’
  • Then, where the value kicks in, ask ‘If we were doing this again, what would we do differently, next time?’
  • Over time, capture your learnings as you refine the processes you use.
  • Share the learnings with others, where you can. It helps them, embeds your own learnings and, even better, it shows you up as a resource that others value highly!


10. Timetabling activities

The key to making things happen is to focus your attention on some of the groundwork in the first instance. From then on, your succession planning activities can easily be integrated with other activities you have, saving time and energy in the process.

  • Many activities will be one-off to start the process.
  • Involving others will create better outcomes and share any additional workload.
  • Integrate much of the action into the day-job.
  • It looks more demanding initially than it actually is!