Ten Ways That Take the "Success" Out of Succession Planning

Jul 18, 2019

By Cy Charney, Kathy Conway

Executives and employees alike often disparage the lack of visible and effective results in the organization’s succession planning process. This holds true whether the process is formal or casual, highly transparent or secretive.

The following ten common mistakes can undermine results

  1. Delegating full responsibility to human resources. The executive team is ultimately responsible to all stakeholders for the ongoing health of the organization. HR can be a facilitator, providing intelligence about best practices and employee skills and interests, but it cannot commit the organization’s resources to the task, nor assess the emerging business challenges to create successor profiles.
  2. Focusing only on the senior team. A senior team is mobile by definition, as its members are highly visible to competitors. Realistic plans must also include key groups and positions that are fundamental to your success and not easily replaced internally or accessed on the open market. These positions may be buried deep in the classification structure, but are no less critical to continuing success. 
  3.  Replacing people, rather than developing them. A plan that simply identifies drop-dead successors typically overlooks the broader talent base available and may not be addressing fundamental changes in the competitive landscape. It is important to invest in all high performers who have the opportunity to grow organizational capacity.
  4.  Not consulting with potential successors. More than a few organizations have been shocked when a top succession candidate has left the organization for a better opportunity, completely unaware of the plans for him or her. It’s vital that succession candidates have an opportunity to discuss their development interests and goals to create a realistic action plan that excites them.
  5.  Identifying successors at every level. A master chart that identifies likely successors for too many positions and levels within the organization drains energy from an organization. Employees need to feel some organizational “breathing space” to grow skills and to be recognized for future opportunities.
  6. Making assumptions. Not all people equipped to advance to the next level actually want to do so. Not all key jobs are fully understood by potential successors. Success depends on frank conversations as much as on detailed skill profiles.
  7. Not updating plans regularly. An annual plan typically doesn’t reflect ongoing intelligence about business dynamics and employee achievements. Refine the plans as often as necessary. 
  8. Relying exclusively on an incumbent’s perspective. An incumbent is one of many who should scope out position requirements and a successor profile. Internal and external clients, direct reports and the senior team all have important insights about creating this profile.
  9.  Outsourcing successor development. Successor development cannot be done wholly off-site. The key ingredients of a plan involve internal exposure and experience, direct client contact, industry events and mentoring by key decision makers and role models. External courses can supplement, but not replace, your unique requirements 
  10.  Calling the recruiters too late. The time to place a call for a key search is well in advance of a vacancy. Develop ongoing relationships with recruiters that specify target organizations and identify unique skills and emerging needs. Create opportunities for recruiters to understand your business thoroughly. Your search, when activated, will be more comprehensive.

Excerpted, by permission of the publisher, from The Trainer’s Tool Kit (2nd edition). Copyright 2005, Cy Charney and Kathy Conway. Published by AMACOM, AMA’s book division.

About the Author(s)

Cy Charney is president of Charney and Associates, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in the human dimension of organizational and individual performance improvement.

Kathy Conway is president of Virtual Communications, a consulting firm specializing in high-impact training results.