Four Challenges with Succession Planning

Published: Jan 13, 2016
Modified: Jun 01, 2020


FEW organizations today have effective succession plans. And there are several reasons why. These reasons amount to challenges that must be overcome if succession plans are to succeed.

The first challenge is that succession planning prompts people to think of their own mortality. When people think about succession planning, they too often associate it with their own retirement, death, disability, or resignation. That is not happy thinking, and people avoid it. But ignoring succession does a disservice to the organization. Consider this: the single most common reason that small businesses fail is undercapitalization, followed by lack of succession planning. If something happens to a key person or the incumbent of a key position, it has effects that go beyond the individual to affect the organization. Managers should be encouraged to think of succession because it is essential to organizational continuity.

The second challenge is that many managers often mistakenly assume that success at one level on the organization chart guarantees success at higher levels. Promotion is sometimes considered a reward for hard work or loyalty to the organization. The problem is that promotions should not be rewards; rather, employee selection decisions should be driven by who is likely to do the best job. Success at one level on the organization chart is no guarantee at higher levels because more responsible jobs are qualitatively different from lower levels, and people must be selected or developed for those qualitative differences. Someone who performs well as a salesperson is not necessarily the best choice for sales supervisor or manager because the job challenges of manager differ from those of a salesperson.

In 1969, Laurence J. Peter published a book entitled The Peter Principle, in which he argued that organizational leaders persist in making the same mistake of regarding promotions as rewards for past performance. As a consequence, people are promoted until they reach a level in which they cannot meet the job challenges. A better approach, as noted in Effective Succession Planning (2015), is to develop a competency profile of ideal performers at each organizational level, and then assess and develop people systematically to prepare them for more, and different, responsibility.

A third challenge in succession planning is overcoming the “like me bias.” Well documented in selection is the temptation of hiring officials to pick people like themselves. Men pick men; women pick women; engineers pick engineers; and so forth. The more ways that an individual resembles (that is, is a clone of) the hiring official, the more likely the individual will be selected for a job or identified as a possible successor. Cloning is not a good management practice because the future is different from the past. A better idea is to identify the characteristics of the person needed at each level on the organization chart, and then compare individuals objectively to those requirements, noting strengths and areas for development.

A fourth challenge in succession planning is overcoming the “like us bias.” Just as one hiring official is biased for someone who is a clone, groups of people do the same. If all top managers are men, they will be reluctant to choose a woman for a top management spot. The “like us bias” occurs not because of deliberate discrimination, but because people are more comfortable with those who are like themselves. That is the reason to identify the characteristics of people needed at each level on the organization chart, and then compare individuals objectively to those requirements, noting strengths and areas for development. That will lead to greater equity in decision making.

About The Author

William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., SPHR, SHRM-SCP, CPLP Fellow, RODC, is President of Rothwell & Associates, Inc., a Professor at Penn State University/University Park and author of Effective Succession Planning, 5th ed. (AMACOM, 2015).