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8 Min Read

The Art of Strategic Succession Planning: Achieving Talent Continuity in an Era of Uncertainty

Leah Hahn

If you were one of the millions of people who obsessively tuned into the HBO series “Succession,” then you’ve seen how a poorly executed succession plan can throw an organization into chaos. 

But while succession planning isn’t nearly as dramatic in real life as it is on TV, it is still an important business practice. Effective succession planning can help mitigate business risks and limit the disruptions that occur when critical talent is lost.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t have a strategy in place for succession planning, even for top executive positions. According to the 2023 Gartner Board of Directors Talent Survey, only 51% of board directors said their company has a written plan for the current CEO’s succession.

This is a topic I was excited to dive into at this year’s 15Five Thrive conference. I wanted to hear how HR leaders are approaching succession planning today and how they’re making it part of their people strategies. 

At Thrive, I was joined onstage by two talented HR leaders: Ranya Hahn, Chief HR Officer at Participate Learning, and Karee Vernon, VP of HR at Kreg Tool Company. 

Ranya and Karee shared their tips for building a succession planning program that delivers talent continuity while meeting the needs of the business. We discussed ways to overcome resistance to change, engage your key leaders in the process, and integrate succession planning practices into performance management. Keep reading for some top takeaways from our conversation.

Why is it so important to have a well-designed succession plan?

When top performers in critical roles leave your company, that void can have a huge impact on business outcomes. Organizations today need a pipeline of effective leaders who have the experience, skills, and competency to step up and fill those roles. 

HR leaders can keep the talent pipeline filled by making succession planning a strategic initiative and evaluating succession plans for key roles throughout the year. When executed successfully, you’ll always have the right talent in place to keep things running smoothly, even during times of change.

Succession planning isn’t just necessary for top positions; it can be useful for crucial roles at all levels across the business. As Karee shared during our conversation, “Many times, people think of succession planning as figuring out who is going to replace your leadership positions. But it goes beyond that, to determine where you have critical roles in the organization that would have a significant impact if that role was vacated.” 

Sari Wilde, Managing Vice President at Gartner, recently said this about succession planning: “Having a quality bench of leaders and a solid succession management process is critical for organizations as they face a number of emerging challenges, including unparalleled transparency and public pressure, increasing automation and digitalization, evolving skills and competencies, and new generations entering and leaving the workforce.”

How can HR professionals engage key leaders in the succession planning process?

While business leaders often look to HR to manage succession planning, the process is most effective when all top executives are involved and bought in on your strategy. Karee shared that this buy-in comes more easily when people leaders have a deep understanding of the business and can sell the leadership team on the value of succession planning (and the potential impact on the business if you don’t have plans in place).

“If you can speak that language with your leaders and you understand the business well enough to have that conversation with them, it’s going to make the buy-in a lot easier,” she said. “Once you know the business, you can position succession planning as a critical business strategy. You do this by matching critical business needs and desired outcomes with the people side of the equation, and you can explain the why and connect it back to the business value.”

Ranya added that you might get some initial pushback from certain leaders who are “a little territorial” about their position or get nervous when they hear mention of succession planning. 

She said it helps to talk through these concerns with them and help them get more comfortable with the idea and the peace of mind a succession plan can provide. “Once you start talking about it more, it becomes less scary for people,” she said. 

How does performance management come into play?

Within your performance management function is a natural place for some aspects of succession planning to occur. Your performance management program (hopefully) includes continually identifying individual opportunities for growth and development. By identifying these opportunities for employees and managers, you may see alignment with the leadership roles you’re trying to plan for. 

As Karee suggested, “To do succession well, you have to know your people, and each touch with them helps you or their manager get to know them better. Without a continuous process, you’re just guessing about their skills and abilities, about their passions and fears, and about their own desires. Once you have that complete picture of them, you can then start to look at potential opportunities for them, whether that be succession opportunities or development and role expansion opportunities.” 

A performance management solution like 15Five can help you seamlessly integrate performance management with succession planning and help you better prepare for leadership transitions. You can use the tools to identify how critical a role is, where talent gaps exist, and potential team members who could fill those needs.

5 tips for integrating succession planning into your people strategy

I asked the panelists to talk about some of the strategies that have worked for them when tackling succession planning. They shared some really useful tips that HR teams can consider when developing their own people strategies.

1. Identify and develop high-potential employees

Succession planning involves identifying high performers and matching them to potential future roles. When you’ve recognized those high-potential individuals in your organization, you can focus on helping them develop the right skills and create readiness plans for succession. This is a great way to promote talent from within, which also increases engagement and can reduce regrettable turnover.

2. Develop core competencies for key roles

Competencies are a measurable set of skills, attributes, characteristics, and knowledge that help an employee perform their job successfully. They basically set the standard of performance within any role. 

When you can identify and document the core competencies for each of your critical roles, you can better determine who might be a good fit to take over should a role become vacant. You can also use those competencies as a guide when creating professional development plans for potential successors.

If you’re newer to competencies, check out our own Jennie Yang’s Guide to Developing Competencies for some examples and helpful resources.

3. Invest in manager coaching and development

One 15Five study found that 65% of managers feel underprepared and struggle to perform in their roles. Enabling managers to lead more effectively in their roles today can equip them to take on elevated roles in the future. 

Ranya recommends coaching to help managers grow and develop as leaders. “Bringing in a coach for high-potential succession candidates can be effective to help them develop their skills and expand their responsibilities to potentially step into a future role,” she said. 

To develop effective managers, HR teams must enable them with the right expectations, learning opportunities, and tools to continuously improve. Consider a management development program that focuses on both training and coaching and occurs in the flow of work.

4. Prioritize employee career planning 

In 15Five’s 2023 Manager Effectiveness Report, we found that almost half (48%) of employees said they had yet to have even one conversation with their manager about their career vision. 

Career planning conversations can not only improve employees’ performance in their current roles but also give people leaders the chance to uncover succession opportunities. Managers should be talking with their direct reports about their career vision and helping them develop the skills they need to take on new challenges.

5. Best-Self Reviews

Our panelists shared how they also use self-reviews in 15Five as a development tool in the succession planning process. 

With 15Five’s Best-Self Review, we look at an employee’s role competencies and create forward-looking development objectives based on their potential growth areas. This is a great way to identify people internally who may be ideal to step into key roles and prepare them should their ideal role become open.

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