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HR’s Essential Guide to Succession Planning

October 8, 2020
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If there’s one thing we’ve learned this year, it’s that things can drastically change in the blink of an eye. When it comes to future-proofing our organizations, it never hurts to prepare for the unexpected — especially when it comes to our employees.

Every day, our employees drive our businesses forward and help us achieve our organizational goals. But what if one of your top employees quits tomorrow? Would your business be able to carry on, or would progress be disrupted? 

A Deloitte study found that it takes more than 90 days to recruit highly skilled workers. Now ask yourself: Could your company last over three months without a business-critical role?

With a strong succession plan in place, you won’t have to. Instead of scrambling to find new talent externally, a succession plan ensures you already have strong internal talent with the skills and drive needed to assume the role.

Here’s a look at what succession planning is and how to prepare a talent contingency plan at your organization.

What Is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing future leaders to assume business-critical roles should an employee holding the position leave the company. While some employee departures will be planned, like when an employee retires or takes maternity leave, many will not be. If an important senior leader decides to voluntarily leave the company, you will need a contingency plan in place to fill their role quickly and maintain the company’s forward momentum toward its goals. That’s where succession planning comes into play.

Keep in mind that succession planning is different from career pathing, which is the process of mapping all the potential roles an employee can hold in an organization as they progress vertically or laterally in their career. It’s also important to note that succession planning is not just for executive roles — it can and should be used for any role that is crucial to business success or that requires a great deal of technical skill or expertise.

The Benefits of Succession Planning

The longer it takes to fill a role, the longer your employees have to shoulder the extra responsibilities their coworker's departure left behind. This increased workload can lower team morale and even lead to burnout. On the other hand, if you rush to fill the vacancy, you could end up making a rash hiring decision that does your company more harm than good.

“The goal is to always think two to three steps ahead and hire and nurture high-performing individuals, so you still have well-prepared candidates to fill key positions — thus, minimizing the time key positions are vacant,” said Cindy Deuser, HR Manager at Thrive Agency, a Texas-based digital marketing agency. “Change is inevitable, but companies need to evolve to maintain their competitive edge.”

Developing a strong succession plan lets you handle employee departures in stride. You can quickly fill a vacant role with internal talent, which can have several positive benefits on the organization. Recruiting internally can help you keep top talent around longer and show employees that your business values and invests in internal growth. This can improve employee retention, boost engagement, and raise morale.

“It’s important to remember that talented people will always have opportunities,” said Matthew Burr, Human Resources consultant and owner of Burr Consulting, LLC, which provides strategic HR services, with a focus on small- and medium-sized companies. “If an organization does not develop its own talent, your employees might be less likely to stay with your organization and more likely to seek outside career growth opportunities.”

Another perk of succession planning is that it allows your company to identify skills gaps within the organization. “While succession planning allows you to better know the strengths of your workforce, it also brings into focus their potential weaknesses, as well,” noted Burr.

Recognizing the key skills your internal talent lacks can direct your learning and development (L&D) initiatives and allow you to take action today to teach employees valuable skills your company will need in the years to come. This can help your organization adapt to talent scarcity, especially in higher-level and technical positions.

How to Implement Succession Planning

1. Identify business-critical roles.

Start by identifying key roles that — if suddenly vacated — could greatly impact the business’s day-to-day operations or ability to meet performance goals. These roles could also be distinguished by their likelihood to be vacated shortly (e.g. an employee approaching retirement age) or the difficulty of finding a replacement (e.g. a highly technical role that you’ve had trouble finding through external recruitment). 

2. Perform a job analysis.

Next, you’ll need to look at the role in question and identify all the skills and competencies a candidate would need to hold this position. This should be a combination of both hard and soft skills and should be listed in detail, as this will be used to help you identify internal candidates who might be a good fit for the position. 

3. Approach promising internal talent.  

Once you know the strengths and skills required for the position, it’s time to find a candidate or pool of candidates who can be trained to assume the role should it be vacated. To do this, look at employees’ performance review scores or behavioral assessments to identify top performers.

It’s also important to speak to these employees and see if the position in question is of interest to them. You don’t want to pour money and effort into their training if the position isn’t in line with their career aspirations.

At this stage, you might also realize that you don’t have the internal talent necessary to fill a role — and that’s okay. Coming to this realization early can help you develop long-term internal training programs to address this organizational skills gap and help you prepare your external recruiting efforts. You can have a job description written and a shortlist of qualified candidates so you’re ready to hit the ground running if an employee announces their departure.

4. Invest in employee development. 

Now, it’s time to teach the skills and facilitate the experience your employees need to be successful in a future role. While there are a variety of ways to do this, here are a few of the most popular employee development strategies.

• Training Courses: If you already have an L&D strategy in place, you can supplement your existing efforts with new succession-planning-specific trainings. This could be introducing new classroom or e-learning training courses that teach in-demand hard or soft skills. You can also assign employees stretch assignments to help them take a hands-on approach to learning and practicing new skills. This could involve turning around a struggling area of the company, owning a new product release, or organizing a large-scale company event — really anything that lets the employee work outside of their usual job responsibilities and allows you to see how their skills hold up in the face of a new challenge.

• Mentoring: Mentoring allows your employees to tap into the knowledge and experience of their coworkers and, consequently, accelerate their learning and growth. According to an ATD Research report, 83% of organizations incorporate mentoring into their succession plans, making it the most popular method of developing succession candidates. A mentor can help employees identify and work on their strengths and weaknesses, provide a second opinion and sound advice, and guide their professional development.

• Job Shadowing: If you’re lucky enough to have a warning that one of your employees in a business-critical role is leaving, job shadowing provides a valuable opportunity for the employee you plan to inherit the role to learn from their predecessor. They can shadow the incumbent employee and learn the ins and outs of the role.

“This is particularly useful when someone is due to retire,” said Carole Burman, Managing Director at Mad-HR, a UK-based HR consultancy. “The opportunity to have them work alongside their replacement means that you don’t lose their corporate knowledge and domain expertise.”

• Job Rotation:
Finally, you might want to consider giving employees the opportunity to learn on the job. Job rotation moves employees into different roles within the organization and allows them to quickly familiarize themselves with different aspects of the business.

These rotations can be as short as a few days or as long as a few months to give your employees the time to learn a new side of the business and pick up skills that could serve them well in their current or future role. For example, someone preparing to lead customer experience at a consumer packaged goods company might rotate through jobs or projects with product development, fulfillment, quality assurance, and packaging development teams to develop a more inclusive view of how their product is made and the process it follows to get to a customer.

“Don’t underestimate how much a lateral move can help broaden an employee’s experience,” said Burman. “In the past, people thought the only way to gain experience was with an upward move. A sideways move into a different job can be an alternative way of gaining additional experience.”

Immersive learning empowers employees to learn and grow their experience personally — not just by hearing information secondhand from others.


Succession planning enables your business to prepare for the future, in the present. That said, to have a truly successful succession plan, you need to keep in mind the direction and speed at which your company is moving.

“When it comes to succession planning, it’s important to recognize that it’s not a process where one-size-fits-all,” stressed Burman. “You need to know which direction your business is heading in and what skills and knowledge will be required for the future. You don’t want to waste your time developing someone for a role that won’t exist in a year.”