Succession Planning and Role Clarification

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Mark Faust

Why is it that the best organizations do a better job of succession planning than the average ones? What reasons would a manager have for not thinking about and communicating a plan around potential replacements for himself? Have you ever wondered how your team might handle the loss of a key individual or yourself and has the thought concerned you?

Great leaders and great teams think long term and think in terms of continuous growth. Yet most companies procrastinate not only on leadership transitions but the development and career paths of their best performers. As a result of poor succession planning, many of the best people leave. In the worst situations, when an unexpected vacancy in leadership presents itself, it is not unheard of for companies to crumble.

Why Succession Planning?

1. Good people are looking for challenges. Some think that they might be stuck in the same job with no prospects or new challenges, and they may begin listening to more interesting challenges offered to them by your competitors. When a good employee knows that there is a long-term career path for him because he has actually discussed it and understands what is expected from him to be worthy of more challenging future opportunities, he is more likely to be motivated and remain with your team.

2. Good succession planning makes you think about what you must do to develop your people before it is too late. Cross training, mentoring, and other development efforts are often seen as the least urgent and even unimportant activities and thus are put off indefinitely.

3. A successful succession planning strategy with adequate amounts of cross training and preparations for advancements in position prepares people to be ready for the inevitable temporary crisis that will come up. When some one gets sick or injured, your company may be able to handle it without missing a beat, instead of scurrying only to make a poor effort at meeting the challenge.

What Must You Do?

Unless a mandate comes down from on high for every leader to identify his eventual or potential replacement, then it just won’t happen. The more insecure a person is, the more likely that individual will feel feel threatened about the conversation of his or her replacement. Make the discussion and planning mandatory and make it companywide. You should discuss the people, plans, and alternatives in small groups where everyone has some familiarity with the people and responsibilities.

We have been amazed in our consulting about the fact that most of our clients that need to facilitate or exhort the execution of this strategy have all the key people they need to make a good plan. Yet too often leaders fret about how people will take having to plan for their replacement.

You must also guard against you or your team thinking that no one is worthy of replacing you. There will be many times that your first choice won’t feel like an adequate choice; that is ok. You will be better off challenging a person with aggressive development efforts and seeing him come up short of worthy of the future role earlier rather than later. You will also benefit by the fact that most participants will become more productive and engaged.

If you eschew perfectionism around the effort and begin immediately, you won’t regret it. Odds are that you will not only begin seeing immediate benefits but start making additional decisions that will impact sales and profitability down the road.

Since management and knowledge workers rarely leverage their talents as much as they could, here is another simple process you can regularly walk your management and teams through that will help them to spend more time doing the work that will most improve performance.

One facet of the definition of management is leveraging the strengths of individuals and resources while minimizing the impact of their weaknesses. If you keep that definition in mind and consider the fact that most people know what they need to do in order to become more effective in their role, then you’ll see that your task becomes to facilitate regular discussion on what it will take for your team members to do more of what they do well, and thus deliver a higher ROI and acceleration of growth. For all that, one of the most important management questions is, “What should we stop doing?” The following role-clarification exercise will help your team to do less of what is holding them up from focusing on the growth objectives.

In more than 20 years of facilitating the following exercise, our experience has been that most people will be very accurate and honest in answering the following questions. But you must ensure that this exercise is conducted in a safe environment. At the end of this outline, we’ll offer a few ideas that help to open the doors of communication. These questions follow a strategic pattern so as to engender a healthy dialogue among your team members about role development and focus. Have your team members answer them in order.

1. My professional skill strengths as they apply to being a part of this team are:

2. My professional skill weaknesses as they apply to being a part of this team are:

3. The strengths of my personality that affect my roles in this team are:

4. The weaknesses of my personality that put a drag on the effectiveness of my roles on this team are:

5. The activities I most want to be doing on a regular basis for this team are:

6. The work activities I least want to be doing on a regular basis, yet might be normally required from me in my position on this team, are:

7. The current definition of my role and responsibilities on this team is:

8. The changes I would like to see in my role and responsibilities on this team (or, what I would like to see my new role and responsibilities become in the near future in order for me to most help accelerate growth) are:

The presenter of those eight points will then be under a ban of silence, and each member of the participating team will give feedback on the following:

—What I see to be your key strengths and what I recommend you do more of or focus more intently on.

—What I or my team can do to better support you in your role or in the evolution of your role.

—Things you could reduce or eliminate to free up time for your priority focus areas.

What we find fascinating in using this questioning strategy is that, most of the time, participants are surprisingly accurate and honest about their weaknesses and priorities.

We recommend that the highest-ranking leader go first in the exercise. His or her honesty will inspire the others to feel safe in opening up about weaknesses as well. Also, the first to go can set the example of being receptive and silent during the feedback phase. For a free 12-step management tool to help keep your managers on track drop us a line.

Take the actions in the above two areas and watch individual and organizational productivity improve!

Take the actions in the above two areas and watch individual and organizational productivity improve!

About the Author(s)

Mark Faust is head of Echelon Management, a growth and turnaround consultancy, and author of Growth or Bust: Proven Turnaround Strategies to Grow Your Business. For more information, visit or contact  at [email protected] or @MarkFaustSr