Is Succession a Dirty Word?

Jobs growth and unemployment rates continue to hold fairly steady in the US, spurring ongoing conversation about a tight market for talent. Many of the CEOs and senior executives I’ve spoken to recently worry about securing a ready supply of the right talent to support their business objectives. At the same time, I’ve been startled by how few CEOs have solid succession plans in place for their organizations. In fact, the mere suggestion of the need to plan for the departure or change of key staff seemed to make them uncomfortable. It’s as if planning for departure is somehow inviting turnover or perhaps, being disloyal to staff.

“Succession” has become a dirty word.

Succession plans are triggered when something happens with a person or in the business. That may be what makes it uncomfortable to discuss: few enjoy that kind of surprise. Yet, a good succession plan mitigates the impact of those events. Done well, succession plans also inform staff development and support overall talent management.  So how do you ensure succession planning is not a dirty word for your team?

• Address both strategic and operating needs.

While succession planning is a strategic activity, it’s not solely about strategy. Consider how you manage daily activities: what capabilities are most needed to keep the lights on? Without those capabilities, in sufficient quantity, there’s no future, either. Then, identify the capabilities or competencies most critical for achieving your vision in the time frame you want. That’s the strategic, longer-term view. Linking strategy and operations in your succession plan assures you have the capabilities (and talent) you need to achieve current and future objectives.

• Focus succession plans on key roles.

It’s not about organization charts or seniority. Not every leadership role requires a specific successor. Neither does organizational structure determine the need for a successor. Instead, identify the specialized skills or expertise that, if lost, could be devastating. Those skills and expertise can exist at any level of the organization. And those are the key roles you want to cover in your succession plan – for both today and the future.

• Include multiple options.

What if a person holding a key role wins the lottery? What will you do, right then? Most CEOs or executives I work with understand that aspect of a succession plan: actions to fill the role immediately in the event of a departure. Less understood is the use of succession planning to assure you have the right candidates—and a ready supply of talent—to take on key roles later. That’s where succession planning informs your talent management strategy. Some roles can be filled externally particularly when: the role is common in other organizations; there is good depth in your market area for that skillset; or it’s considered to be a more fungible or transferrable skillset that you can adapt to the specifics of your business.

Other roles are better developed from within. Those are the specialized skills that take time to acquire, are more rare in your geographic areas, or are highly specific to your industry or business. In that case, both your succession and talent development plans must include specific actions to prepare current talent for future jobs.

Perhaps most importantly, a meaningful succession plan doesn’t sit on a shelf gathering dust. It must be a living, breathing document that you actively review and update. Don’t wait for a lottery number to be called to figure out what you’ll do when the people filling those key roles move on.

Tara J. Rethore: Tara Rethore works with CEOs and Boards to make strategy real and actionable: that’s Strategy for Real™. In industry and as a consultant, Tara has done this across a variety of industries, globally, and in mission-driven and for-profit contexts. She knows what it takes to succeed and how to make strategy real. Currently, Tara serves on the Boards of D+R International, Inc. and JHS Scholarship Fund.