Succession Planning: A 6-Step Strategy for Success

Succession Planning

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Succession planning means giving your internal talent the skills to fill your organization's most important roles in the future. Find out how & get your template.

Your people are the foundation of your company’s success. They have the skills and talents to achieve goals and drive success, and organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of boosting those skills to future-proof against upheaval and maintain productivity. According to the 2021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Survey, 72% of execs believe “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill, and assume new roles” is the top-ranking factor in navigating future disruptions. 

Similarly, LinkedIn’s 2022 Workplace Learning Report reveals that employees are often motivated to learn in order to get another job or promotion internally, or get closer to reaching their career goals. Your people want you to invest in their career development, and when more senior positions open up within your company, they want to be ready to step into those roles. Succession planning upskills your top internal talent within your organization, helping you better meet any future challenges.

What Is Succession Planning?

Very few employees consider any position a ‘job for life’. This means that your most talented and senior employees will almost certainly resign at some point. While finding a replacement at short notice can cause disruption and loss of productivity, having a pool of talented people lined up and ready to step into positions as they become vacant means maintaining operational continuity with minimal disruption.

Succession planning is the process of finding and developing your existing talent to advance into the most business-critical positions. These positions can include senior managers and future leaders, but might also cover any role with a skill your organization can’t function without. The aim is to future-proof your organization by pre-selecting suitable alternatives, minimizing the disruption caused if a key member leaves.

But it’s not enough to just pre-select talent to move into those roles. You must actively prepare your talent pool by pinpointing the skills, knowledge, and best practices needed to fill these roles and deliver tailored training to help them prepare. 

This makes good business sense as upskilling employees and training them to step into these positions means strengthening your organization for the future. Not only will you have a more agile workforce ready to fill vacancies, but it also helps your employees to actively define their career goals and learn the skills they need to get where they want to be. 

Succession planning matters to employees, and not having plans in place can be detrimental. SHRM’s State of the Workplace Report asked employees of organizations in the US to rank which talent management activities they rate as most important. Succession plans for key roles were a top five priority—but respondents also felt organizations fall short in delivering. Not only are employees keen to learn new skills and advance in their careers to more senior positions, but they’re at the sharp end of the disruption caused by the loss of senior personnel. A critical loss of leadership or technical support with no successor immediately in place means your entire workforce could be cast adrift with no sense of direction. Making plans as early as possible is the best way to minimize this risk and keep your organization running smoothly.

When’s the Best Time to Build a Succession Plan?

While company departures such as retirement will be planned far in advance, there probably won’t be as much time to prepare for the majority. It’s never too early to start building a succession plan, and the further into the future you can forecast, the smoother the transitions will be. Identifying a successor and making plans for your most critical roles can help safeguard your organization. You should start planning as early into the incumbent’s tenure as possible—even during their first weeks in the job.

Depending on the size of your workforce and the number of key positions, it’s not uncommon to spend a year building a plan and another year tweaking it. Ideally, preparing succession plans around three years in advance of departure gives successors plenty of time to learn. It’s also likely that each role will have different requirements depending on their complexity and how important they are.

What Are the Steps Involved in Building a Succession Plan?

Succession planning isn’t just a one-time deal—it takes commitment to ongoing employee development. How you build a succession plan will vary depending on the size of your organization and its goals, but there are six important steps:

1) Outline Business Goals

Step one is to outline what you want to achieve. List your organization’s goals and if you see these changing over time. Think about the skills you need now and the ones you’ll need in the future.

Laying out your organization’s vision for the future means succession planning will align with business goals and objectives. Your strategy should outline the method and objectives so it’s clear what roles to train for, who to focus succession planning activities on, and how to measure success.

2) Identify Key Roles and Responsibilities

Once you know where your business is heading, identify the people and the positions that will help you get there. Both will help to communicate and achieve your business goals. You’ll have to look beyond just leadership and senior managerial roles when you’re thinking about your most critical positions. For example, include any highly technical roles with specific skills that keep the business moving forward if they currently lack an obvious successor.

After you’ve identified those key positions, rank the roles based on the impact or risk they’d cause if they became vacant and how likely it is that they’re going to become vacant in the near future—this will help prioritize where to start developing succession plans.

3) Define Individual Competencies and Map to Career Growth

After you’ve assessed every position and know which roles must be filled with the most talented successors, you need to identify exactly what competencies employees will need to perform successfully in these roles and list the desired skills. 

Be as specific as you can—think about any technical and soft skills, behaviors, or certifications that make the current employees successful in that role or the ideal skills that candidates will need to call upon in their day-to-day. Make sure you list any qualifications or mandatory compliance training they’ll need before they can step into the position, as they’ll need plenty of time to practice and pass courses. If your current candidate is new to the role, you could look at the job description and some of the qualities you hired them for as inspiration.

4) Assess Successors Against Competencies

When you know what competencies are needed, look at your current workforce. This will help you to work out who has the knowledge, experience, skills, background, and potential needed to step into these positions in the future. Don’t just single out the top performers, see if any employees have shown interest in any of the desired skills or are actively working on any training or development activities. 

As with everything, transparency with your people is the key to success. It’s a good chance to understand your employees’ career goals too. Encourage open discussions about their development and the career paths available to them. Whether during performance reviews or one-on-ones, managers should already be making time for conversations about the employee’s professional career goals and the skills they want to develop. Understanding both the skills and roles employees are aiming for can help you identify which of your people are keen to move into your key leadership positions and which of them will be developing in ways that will align with where the organization is heading in the future. Equally, you’re not leading employees toward paths they don’t want to go down.

5) Create and Implement a Development Plan

To make a comparison between successors and roles, look at the potential successor’s skill levels compared to those needed—this will show you where to focus your training. A development plan will help employees prepare for new roles by increasing their knowledge, competencies, and skills. Plans should be tailored to each individual based on their development goals and skills gaps. 

Technical skills and formal qualifications will most likely form part of development plans, but don’t forget to include plenty of on-the-job training like stretch assignments, coaching other employees, or taking the lead on a project, as this is how employees will really get a feel for the role. A plan should also include a handover period for employees to learn directly from their superiors before they take the reins. If this isn’t possible, think about training and knowledge-sharing in other formats. For example, instead of face-to-face training, your SMEs could impart their wisdom through pre-recorded videos and allow employees to access materials through your learning platform. Don’t forget, there’ll be loads of job-specific, unwritten rules about how to perform in a particular role that only your current senior staff will know.

6) Analyze the Success of Employee Training and Development

Monitor and evaluate progress regularly to check on success. Metrics such as the number of key positions filled by promotion instead of recruitment or how many years a candidate takes to progress can tell you how successful the succession plan is. The metrics you choose should reflect goals, so make sure you outline them clearly in the succession plan.

Think about ways to measure success in other areas of the company too. Employee engagement surveys can provide important insight into how satisfied people feel about their managers and leaders and how effectively they feel they’re communicating the company’s vision and leading change. Similarly, a learning management system can uncover data on successful training toward closing skills gaps through assessment scores and post-course tests. Or you can look for on-the-job examples like successfully leading a project to completion.

What to Consider When Succession Planning

Succession planning requires regular communication with every employee, careful strategy, and a commitment to change. It’s likely that you’ll need to change and update plans regularly based on demand, but laying the foundation as early as possible means your workforce will be skilled, agile, and ready to move into their new roles. 

Here’s what to consider to ensure that your people have everything they need to keep moving forward:

1) Make Learning and Development a Priority

Succession planning will only be successful if you have a culture of leaders committed to developing the next generation through sharing knowledge and regularly promoting training activities. By laying the groundwork for L&D through regular training, your employees should take the initiative to develop their skills based on their career goals and actively look for ways to put their learning into practice. Tying learning to business outcomes through performance management metrics helps employees to see the impact they’re making.

Your talent pool won’t be ready to take on a new role after just a few weeks, but creating a culture of learning means they’ll be gaining valuable knowledge and skills over time. All employees should have access to on-demand training through an LMS, an understanding of how their activities align with their goals through personalized development plans, and the support to take the lead on their own training activities. Not only will this help them in their day-to-day, but it’ll also give them the skills they need as they move forward.

2) Review Your Talent Regularly

Planning should be an ongoing process, so review progress regularly to check employees are on track, aligned with organizational goals, and role requirements like skills and behaviors are still relevant to organizational needs. 

Developing an employee to take the next step successfully takes regular feedback and communication. Employees should meet regularly with their managers one-on-one and discuss the progress of training and career development activities. Use these performance management insights to inform how successfully they’ve developed the competencies needed to move into their desired roles. This information will give you important feedback about how their development and whether their goals are aligned. If they need a bit of extra support to get to grips with a skill or competency, simply add a course or program to their training plan.

3) Develop Leadership Behaviors

Your pool of employees preparing to step into leadership positions must also build upon a set of transferrable values and behaviors to help them communicate and resonate with your people. For your leaders to be successful, they need more than just technical skills. A 2021 survey reveals that 67% of non-managers believe that their leaders don’t meet their expectations for checking on their health and wellbeing, and the same study shows that 53% of managers don’t have the experience to easily identify when staff might be struggling or experiencing burnout. 

Look for ways future managers and leaders can build transferable skills that closely align with your organization’s values like effective communication, inclusion, and emotional intelligence, as this will help foster a resilient culture. It could be something simple like coaching another employee or collaborating with coworkers from different departments to learn to adapt their communication style.

4) Look at Both Vertical and Lateral Advancement

Always keep the bigger picture in mind when it comes to internal mobility. While employees traditionally have gained the most experience by progressing upwards through a company, this isn’t always the case. A lateral move to a different department or function of the business gives employees the chance to build their skills and gain experience in a different area, especially if employees have expressed interest in development that would usually sit outside their day-to-day responsibilities. Not every internal move needs to be upwards—there’s a wealth of experience to be gained from every new opportunity, not just the top.

Employees are also more likely to stay with their current company if it invests in their career development. Data shows that employees have a 62% chance of remaining with the company after making a lateral move compared to 45% without internal mobility. Your workforce needs to know that you’re invested in their development and recognize their talents and abilities.

The Importance of Succession Planning Templates

Succession planning is highly personal and depends on your current organizational structure, goals, and workforce. It can take some heavy lifting to put the processes in place, but easily replicable succession plan templates can streamline the process. They’re a great starting point to prioritize your efforts and communicate your strategy. Once you’ve identified the most important roles and adapted the template to meet your needs, use the information you’ve gathered and feed it into employee development plans for upskilling your talent and preparing them for their move.

Be sure to gather as much information as you can to build your templates as this will give you a more rounded view of your organization and workforce. Line managers are a great source of knowledge because they know their direct reports better than most in the business. Career conversations and performance reviews can also help inform where employees’ strengths lie, what drives them in their careers, and what training they’re actively doing to build their skills. The more information you have, the easier it will be to flesh out your plans and find the best candidates for the future.

How Can Bridge Help?

Creating an agile workforce begins with training. Bridge’s learning platform gives you the power to create and deliver personalized development plans. It’s easy for your employees to refine their skills, apply them in their work, and find opportunities to collaborate and share knowledge with their peers. 

Better still, our customizable analytics allow you to measure the impact of training and see how employees have put their new skills to use.

Picture of Akash Savdharia

Akash Savdharia

Akash is an entrepreneurial technology executive with over 10 years of experience bringing SaaS products to market that solve impactful data-driven problems. Prior to joining Bridge, Akash was the co-founder and CEO of Patheer, an AI-powered talent marketplace to help companies grow and retain employees by empowering them to discover new career paths and opportunities internally. At Patheer, he drove the company's vision, strategy, and products, which revolutionized the enterprise talent and career mobility space. In September 2020, Learning Technologies Group acquired Patheer to bolster its product and technology expertise in this fast growing market. At Bridge, Akash is the Vice President of Talent Solutions, and continues to drive the vision, growth, and strategy for skills and talent mobility.

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