What is Succession Planning? 9 Tips To Develop A Strategy

Black background with a large bright pink dow with an icon of two figures passing a crown What is Succession Planning?

Updated 9/6/2023


Succession planning is a key process for any company. To do it effectively, it’s important to develop and eventually implement a succession planning system for what happens when an employee leaves. It’s important because it ensures the business will continue to grow and maintain its success when there is a departure.

Let’s explore what succession planning is, why it’s crucial, and what strategies are best for implementing it in your organization.

What is Succession Planning?

Essentially, succession planning is preparing for the future of your business by identifying employees to step up into key roles. It’s not all that different from career pathing, but it allows the person presently in a key role to train and develop someone to step in in case they are promoted, out on extended leave, or moves on from your company. It’s designed to help the worker and your business to continue to grow—even with changes in staff.

Succession planning is most commonly used for leading positions in a company like managers, directors, VPs, CEO, president, and director of the board (if your company has one). But succession planning is useful for any role, especially one that has been staffed by an employee for a lengthy period of time or has a direct impact on the success of your company.

Succession planning has quite a few factors involved, so it’s important to be thinking ahead and how you will lead this important process. Let’s take a look.

Why is Succession Planning Important?

Succession planning is important because it allows an organization to more easily transition through leadership changes. It ensures that a company’s success doesn’t fully rely on certain individuals being in specific roles. As key leaders earn promotions or move on to other opportunities, a quality succession plan helps maintain consistency and extend a clear vision for the future. When you enact a succession plan, each new leader in an organization is fully prepared for their duties and can immediately take over key projects.

A succession plan doesn’t just facilitate transitions—it also helps reduce the impact of sudden departures to more quickly find an interim or permanent replacement.

Succession plans also support employee retention by creating clear paths for career development for your most promising team members. By identifying employees who are interested in advancing and offering them specialized training to fill their skills gaps, you demonstrate that you’re invested in their career growth. This can encourage top performers to envision a long-term professional future with your company, boosting morale and loyalty.

Building Bench Strength to Support Succession Planning

One of the keys to a successful succession planning strategy is having a strong roster of qualified employees who are already prepared to move into leadership roles. This concept is known as bench strength—think sports teams and always having someone warmed up and ready to take the field if another player has to step off. If you already have a pool of motivated team members with strong organizational knowledge, you may not have to dedicate as many resources to identifying and training potential successors when an opening does occur.

Having bench strength involves both developing quality potential leaders and having a quantity of them. By building a team with multiple highly-qualified leadership candidates, you have options in place in the event of a sudden departure or organizational restructuring. Having a “bench” of potential alternates for each role in your organization is also important.

Here are a few tips for developing bench strength on your team to strengthen your succession planning strategy.

Analyze Key Positions

Start by analyzing the core leadership positions in your organization. Look at your turnover rate for leadership positions to learn which roles have the highest demand for qualified replacements. This helps you forecast which positions you may need to replace in the future, allowing you to build a bench of employees that qualify for those roles.

You can also look into which positions you were able to fill internally (using bench strength as part of planned career advancement vs. unplanned role filling that required scrambling to source) and which positions required outside talent and expertise to fill. This can help you identify important skill gaps and start building those skills on your team.

Identify Top Performers

Think about which employees would be your first choice to take over leadership roles if someone left your organization. Even if they aren’t fully qualified for the role today, identifying people with high potential can help you start developing your bench. Communicate with managers and dig into performance reviews to see which employees could potentially move into key roles. Remember to have conversations with those staffers to gauge their interest level in moving into the roles you’re preparing them for.

Cross-train Employees

Build an agile team by cross-training your leadership prospects for multiple roles. This gives them a broad skill set that can apply to different leadership positions as they open. If you only have one employee lined up for each open role, you may leave talented employees waiting a long time for the right role to open up. Teaching top employees about multiple roles makes it easier to promote the right employees at the right time.

Support Career Development

Having a strong bench involves keeping talented employees available for potential advancements. If you keep an employee waiting for a leadership opportunity for too long, they may look elsewhere to advance their career—we’ve all seen it happen. Offering training opportunities and clear career development paths can boost retention and ensure that your bench remains loyal to your team. Find ways to increase their responsibilities and keep them engaged with their work, even if no immediate leadership opportunities are available.

Consistently Develop Your Team

Maintaining a talented bench is an ongoing process. As employees get promoted and move into leadership roles, their spot on the bench then becomes available. Constantly look for ways to upskill entry-level employees and create a culture of internal development. Implementing business leadership and mentorship programs can provide you with an ongoing way to develop bench strength in business.

RELATED: How to Create an Internal Development Plan for Your Team

9 Succession Planning Strategy Tips

A succession planning program allows your business to move forward after key employees leave or get promoted to other positions. There are different procedures that you can use to ensure a smooth transition for your company, as well as what will need to happen in order for the next generation of leaders within your business to be able to take over without any hiccups or issues occurring.

We’ve laid out nine steps involved in successful succession planning.

1. Understand Your Company’s Needs

The very first step is to understand what your company needs.

Do you need someone with strong communication skills or someone who has good technical abilities when it comes to using certain software programs? List out all the qualities you are looking for in a new employee. These things can include:

  • Necessary experience
  • Leadership abilities (this is typically the most important when it comes to promoting)
  • Connections within an industry
  • Professionalism
  • Communication skills
  • Plan for the position or company’s direction

Another thing you can do to find out the company’s needs for the position is as ask who’s leaving the position what skills/qualities you should look for in a candidate when searching for their replacement.

Finally, what is your time frame? You may only have short notice that the employee is leaving, but you also may have months to put a plan in place.

It’s important you know what your company needs for the position before going through the process of finding a new employee.

2. Identify Succession Candidates (Internal and External)

After you’ve identified what your company needs are, the next step is to create a list of potential candidates who could assume the position based on what you’ve learned about your company’s demands.

This list should be made up of employees who are ready to take on new responsibilities and have the right skill sets to accomplish the needs you listed out before. It’s important to get an idea of which people are interested in moving up within the organization, what their strengths are, and what they’ve done so far that makes them a top contender for the next role.

You also need to look at what someone’s career path has been and if the position you’re trying to fill falls along their professional and personal development path. Do this by asking candidates directly. (More on this in a moment.)

Don’t limit the future by not promoting a good employee simply because they’re doing a good job in their current role. Key players should have a succession plan built in to their role! Keep all of your options open.

This is all to say that there is more than just looking at someone’s hard and soft skills.

However, sometimes the best person to accomplish your succession plan is someone external to the organization. Just as employees within the organization can have the necessary skills and qualifications, you may find external candidates who check all the right boxes. While external candidates may cost more in the end to bring in the fold, they also may have fresh ideas and direction your company is looking for.

Typically external candidates for succession plans are found through connections within an industry or through a search firm.

Overall, it’s vital you understand both a candidate’s skill set and the qualities that don’t show up on paper.

3. Reach Out to Employees Who Are High Potential

Once you have a list of candidates, it’s time to reach out to them. If those candidates express they are interested in filling the open position, make sure they’re clear on what the process entails. These process details include:

  • How many steps/interviews the process has
  • The timeline for when they’d succeed the current employee
  • What is expected of the employee between the time they’re selected and ultimately start the job
  • Explaining what the role’s responsibilities are

Keep in mind that not everyone will be ready for what the next role demands, but that’s okay. It’s important to have your succession candidates be involved in discussion once they’re deemed a potential fit. All the candidates need to feel comfortable letting you know how they feel throughout the whole process.

4. Collaborate with Your Team to Evaluate Candidates

It’s difficult for one hiring manager or interviewer to gain the complete picture of what potential successors are capable of or what they can bring to your organization. To help curb this stress and make the process better as a whole, involve multiple people from your company in the evaluation procedures.

This is where it’s helpful having the person whom is being succeeded involved in the process. They can help evaluate candidates, as can other employees who’ve worked with the role on a day-to-day basis. This includes employees who report to the role as well as people who have the role report to them. This way everyone’s input will be considered and a consensus will be reached as to who the best candidates are.

RELATED: Infographic: Impact of Culture on Employee Retention

5. Decide On A Candidate and Inform All Involved

Has a position opened up and you need to fill it right away? If you’re in a hiring freeze or prioritize internal promotions, you will likely need to start with internal candidates. Great! Now you can fast track the planning process to pick a successor—or successors—you have in mind.

Choose the person who could succeed the employee leaving and talk to them about your decision. If they accept and agree to everything, great! It’s time to enact a transition plan (which we’ll talk about in a moment). If your first choice declines, huddle back with the decision makers and talk to the next person and follow the same steps of the transition plan.

Lastly, once the high potential leader is identified, take time to talk to others who may not be quite ready yet to be a part of a succession plan. If they have questions about why now isn’t the time, be as transparent as you can about why. They may need to develop certain skills, abilities, or qualifications, and this will give them the opportunity to work on those.

6. Create and Implement a Transition Plan for Immediate Needs

Next, create a transition plan for what the next steps are for a candidate after they’re selected for an open position. This plan will define what the new candidate will do between being selected and starting the new role. It also defines what the person leaving can do to help this process along.

Your transition plan can include things like:

  • The timeline for the full transition
  • Priorities for what needs to be accomplished
  • What the person leaving needs to wrap up and transition responsibility over to the successor
  • What the successor needs to wrap up in their old role and transition to the person succeeding them
  • Any mentorship the predecessor needs to give to the successor
  • What trainings the successor needs before starting a new role
  • Whatever information the successor needs to accomplish their new responsibilities

You can also give the successor a trial run of their new role and responsibilities while the predecessor is still there. This includes tasks like leading meetings, reporting to new bosses, and participating in higher-level strategy summits. This will be helpful so the successor can get feedback on how some things in the role are done while the person who knows how to do the role is still there.

7. Evaluate Results and Test Any New Procedures

Once the successor has started their new role, you should evaluate your plan that put the person in the role in the first place. Ask questions like:

  • Did they have enough training to be set up for success?
  • What could you do differently to build bench strength for the next turnover?
  • Were they given too many tasks too fast?
  • How are they handling their new responsibilities?
  • Are they achieving similar (or better or worse) results than their predecessor?

Ask the successor to provide feedback on how the succession plan was implemented on their end, too. Encourage transparency, because your evaluation will inform how you enact future plan.

If you find any holes in your succession planning strategy, you can update your plan with new isights and processes. For example, maybe your next transition period is three months instead of two months, or better yet, something you are building upon for years as you identify high potential leaders who can be groomed for a future role. Did that extra time provide the successor greater comfort and ability to do their new role?

8. Acknowledge Your Succession Plan in Future Hiring Decisions

Hire for what you need now, but don’t forget about succession planning when it comes to future hiring decisions. Take what you’ve learned from this process into consideration when it comes to what skillsets and talents are needed for your organization to continue to grow down the line.

It’s always great to plan for internal talent to assume key roles, but new employees can also be a part of your replacement planning process if they bring valuable experience to the table and their career goals align with upper management opportunities that may become open down the line.

The goal is to create a win-win situation for both the new staffer and what the company needs in the succession planning process.

9. Have A Plan to Backfill a Role If Needed

This likely won’t be the last time you need to handle this kind of situation. If you hired from within, that now leaves another role that needs a succession plan. Recognize that as you implement a succession strategy in one role, it will probably create a need for a succession plan in another. That’s okay, though, because you have all the tools to help you implement one!

Final Thoughts

Succession planning and succession management are important parts of growing and maintaining a successful company.

Putting strategies in place can help you fill important positions effectively so your team and your business can continue running smoothly when there’s turnover at any level, but it’s even more impactful for key leaders.

Succession planning is an effective way of expanding what your business is capable of doing and making sure that you’re prepared for growth opportunities. There should always be room in any organization for someone to move up, even if they may not have had experience at this level before.

The succession planning process isn’t something that develops overnight. If there’s a well-defined plan in place, though, it helps individuals and the company accomplish goals with greater ease.

Now that you know what to do when a key employee leaves, it’s time to ensure you hire employees who can fill critical roles in the future. Head over to the Insight Global hiring page and we’ll help you find top talent right away.



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