“Succession planning can be part of a broader talent management process that fosters the next generation of leaders.” Genevieve Roberts makes the case for a structured, data-informed approach to leadership development.
Succession planning is a formal, proactive and deliberate process that determines the key people who will be most qualified and ready to move into vacated positions. Although this ritual is important for smooth transitions and ongoing organizational wellbeing, decision makers may be tempted to avoid it. There can be a reluctance to have direct discussions about retirement with incumbents, or a fear of losing revered leaders. And discomfort with the prospect of challenging career development conversations is another common reason.

Investing the necessary time and resources in what should be a careful and thoughtful deliberation can be demanding. However, reframing conversations with incumbents and potential successors to focus on “what’s next in life” can smooth that process. A closer look at individual goals and plans — and how the job does or does not support them — leads to an engaging, open and productive exchange of information and ideas.

Rather than a snapshot in time of who the candidates are and where they are in their progression, succession planning can be part of a broader talent management process that fosters the next generation of leaders. The question is how to transition from succession planning to talent management?

Identify and define roles

Members of the board often prompt succession planning as part of their oversight of risk mitigation, including covering key executive roles in the event of a quick exit. Although C-suite and other prominent positions are typically covered in the plan, there’s an opportunity to more effectively manage talent succession and reduce risk by including as many roles as the organization can afford.

This exercise requires clearly identifying not only the roles to fill, but also their requirements and drivers of success — including core competencies, skills and other criteria related to the organization as well as the specific role. Forecasting near-term and long-term workforce needs and considering significant influences will produce better results. Some of the more relevant factors to evaluate are plans for retirement, turnover trends, employee engagement and satisfaction, compensation competitiveness, management training and employee readiness.

The output of this process may include leadership competency models, updated job descriptions, and a list of roles to include in the succession plan from the C-suite on down. At the outset of planning, it’s important to define and communicate the scope of the identified roles, and who will do the evaluating and planning — for instance, direct managers, past managers, a third party, the board of directors or others. Small firms may involve the CEO or senior leaders. Whatever the approach, employees should have a clear understanding of these process details.

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Make good use of data
Another opportunity is taking a more comprehensive approach that integrates data and insights to improve processes and outcomes for managing talent succession. A basic nine-box matrix for succession planning has been used for years to evaluate past performance and leadership potential. Within this model the x-axis assesses performance, the y-axis assesses potential, and the employee is assigned to the box on the grid where their “x” and “y” ratings intersect.

While this simple concept is easily applied, it has some drawbacks when used alone. The nine boxes consider only current performance, lack uniform criteria, and rely entirely on the direct manager’s experience and opinion. More complete, data-driven approaches introduce past performance appraisal ratings, a 360-degree assessment, and interviews with incumbents that create a comparative profile of their strengths, areas for improvement and career goals. An analysis of all inputs forms a sharper picture of future placements that are likely to be the best fit. Findings also inform specific and constructive suggestions for progressing people to the next level — by helping them stay put or realigning roles.

Besides improving the quality of information, organizations can increase planning efficiency through technology investments. With cloud-based programs, leaders’ transition and development plan data is easily updated and shared across the globe.

Data for individuals should cover the position description, scope of responsibility, leadership work history, leadership style dimensions, age and other demographics. Plans for retirement, performance and development priorities, and long-range personal and professional goals for advancement complete the profile. Automation is another important capability because it allows for a flexible, fluid process where nothing is set in stone. Assessments and ratings can change, interests may shift, and organizational needs always evolve.

Institutionalize talent development
As a critical element of talent development and career wellbeing, succession planning contributes to the stability of the organization’s future by shaping a better employee experience and workplace culture. Individualized support for planning and achieving goals helps employees match their experience to their expectations.

CEOs establish the environment for talent development and, as business leaders, they’re uniquely positioned to inspire its success. However, while top leadership defines and conveys the organization’s commitment to this cultural priority, HR facilitates progress by providing the right structure and tools along the way. For example, performance reviews can be designed to track and reward managers for achieving promotions, or developing and preparing direct reports who move into more fulfilling roles.

An alternative to role-specific succession planning is talent pools. Instead of pinpointing the next CEO, this relatively new approach identifies executive talent pools that show C-suite potential. The overall advantage is a better line of sight across the organization into individuals whose aligned capabilities are a fit — including leadership competency, technical skills and strategic capacity. The visibility these pools create also makes it easier to uncover qualified prospects, who may have been overlooked because they haven’t had face time with executives.

Communicate with transparency

Culture dictates the degree of transparency to use when notifying people of where they land on the list of succession candidates — or if they don’t fit into the plan. To the greatest extent possible, managers should be direct with feedback, support development plans and manage expectations. Employees need to be told where they stand relative to realistic career goals, and notified of opportunities to grow or enhance skill sets or other abilities.

Above all is the importance of celebrating successes. Promotions are opportunities to have in-depth, productive conversations that either encourage high-potential candidates to stay, or support talent with other opportunities to work more purposefully toward reaching their goals.

Integrating succession planning into ongoing talent management enhances efforts and results. Development plans customized with programs like mentoring, coaching and stretch assignments fortify organizations with resilience to change by strengthening employees with the readiness to take on their next career phase. When enough time and intention are put into a workforce plan — that’s openly discussed and regularly updated — succession planning becomes a welcome proposition and a highly valuable investment.

Genevieve Roberts
Managing Director & Service Line Leader, HR & Leadership Consulting

Genevieve serves as a trusted advisor to leaders who want to create great places to work. She specializes in helping organizations manage and develop their talent through services that include leadership development, organizational development, executive coaching and assessment tools.


¹Harvard Business Review, “7 Tenets of a Good CEO Succession Process,” December 2016