Succession planning has long served a critical function in corporate planning. However, traditional approaches to succession planning are quickly becoming outdated as the workforce landscape turns more uncertain.
With shortages of skilled talent across nearly every industry, you can no longer rely on external hiring to fill vacancies. And this concern extends beyond the C-suite. Effective succession plans address middle management and key positions as well. Do you know how you’d replace critical leaders throughout your org chart? These are situations worth considering.
In today’s volatile labor market, organizations need to take a proactive approach to all aspects of business operations. And succession planning in particular is one element that may have a distinct company-wide impact depending on how well-thought-out your strategy is.
Let’s discuss how you can update your approach to succession planning to better serve your business and people.
What is succession planning?
Succession planning is the process of identifying and preparing potential candidates to fill a critical position should a vacancy arise. There are a variety of reasons why a role may become vacant, such as retirement, death or simply leaving for a better opportunity. Ideally, to ensure a relatively quick and seamless transition, succession candidates will have received ample training and other professional development prior to assuming the role.
This strategy is also useful for temporarily filling roles in the event of extended absences due to parental leave, illness or travel.
Succession planning challenges
There are two main challenges posed by traditional succession planning strategies that both slow down the process and destabilize day-to-day operations within an organization:
Developing succession plans reactively
This means candidates are being selected and trained as a former leader is leaving their position, instead of naming successors and ramping up training and development far in advance of vacancies. Best case, this lengthens the onboarding and transition period for replacements. Worst case, the position stays vacant, with critical duties or initiatives falling through the cracks.
Across the board, departments, teams and projects all lose efficiency and functionality when left without a head, especially when its replacement is not adequately prepared to take on the role.
Planning only for C-suite succession
Of course, organizations need clear succession plans for top executives. But addressing critical positions and mid-level leaders matters as well.
Having successors in place can help teams and entire departments weather the loss of a key employee or manager, reducing downtime for finding a candidate or training a replacement. Further, by naming and training potential candidates lower in the pipeline, you are effectively developing the next layer of succession candidates—including those who may lead the company one day.
Being aware of these challenges is the first step to giving your succession planning strategy a modern update. Let’s talk about what comes next.
Tips for modernizing your succession planning strategy
Understand generational trends and data
It’s important to take big-picture industry data as well as data from your own workforce into account when developing a strategy for succession planning.
With nearly a quarter of the workforce nearing retirement age, it’s critical to start thinking about how to usher in the next generation of leaders and where their skill sets will fit. Gen X, Millenials and Gen Z are all showing up with very different sets of competencies and values, so the skills required of various positions and the education and training needed may vary greatly among generations.
Think development, not planning
If high-potential employees are already growing their skills and engaging in development programs, then they're primed to potentially fill critical leadership roles down the line. After all, you can't plan to fill positions if your organization doesn't offer the training, education or learning resources to properly develop your team members in the first place.
Additionally, going through a succession planning exercise can give you valuable insight into potential skills gaps among your workforce. You’re then able to take these insights and work to identify the training and education required to prepare that worker or group of workers to take on an advanced role in the future.
This also addresses the challenge of interim leadership. By supporting employees across the board in upskilling and reskilling, you're enabling them to step into critical roles if the need arises.
Prioritize outcomes, not process
As with any business strategy, tracking the results of your succession planning efforts is a must.
Carefully monitoring metrics will allow you to gain data-driven insights to help you to make adjustments for more efficient, effective succession planning in the future.
Some metrics to track include:
- Number of leadership positions at each level filled internally vs. externally
- Percentage of high potential employees in your candidate pool
- Cost of succession process with vs. without investment in long-term employee development
Avoid overwhelming your workload with convoluted or overly-technical assessment tools. The goal of the metrics you assign to the succession planning process should simply be to indicate progress or pinpoint opportunities for evaluation and growth.
Regular performance evaluations will allow you to track the effectiveness of your development programs in the context of succession. Tracking individual skills development over time is equally relevant.
Set realistic goals, timelines and expectations
The above metrics will offer insight into the weak points of your plan and guidance on where to focus your efforts for a more effective succession strategy. Practically speaking, this means identifying candidates with ideal competencies and providing developmental support to prepare them for an advanced role, all within an appropriate timeframe.
For example, if a high potential candidate has a great capacity for learning and is on the appropriate career path but would require a year of development for a vacancy opening in six months, this timeline doesn’t work and another candidate should be sought out.
However, continuous employee development can help you to keep your talent pool filled and give you a larger range of high-potential, high-performing employees to choose from when the time comes.
A strategic approach to succession planning
There is no time like the present to leave behind outdated succession planning tactics and revamp your approach to be more strategic and proactive. And although it’s not possible to predict when a critical member of your organization might vacate their position, prioritizing upskilling and continuous employee development guarantee smooth, successful transitions in leadership.