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January 15, 2020 | General | Posted by Ascentis Thought Leadership

How to Put Success Back in Succession Planning

Hey Leader!  If you won the lottery tomorrow and left your position, do you have a successor ready to step up to fill your shoes? If your key staff member left tomorrow, is someone prepared to take that role? What are you doing as a leader or as an organization to prepare for the expected or even the unexpected? 

According to SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), close to 60% of the organizations surveyed did not have a formal succession plan. Too often, succession planning is nonexistent, and organizations make a mad scramble when there is an unexpected leader or key staff member departure. People get promoted into management position who may be great technically, and sorely lacking in coaching and developing others.  

In my career as an Organizational Development Consultant, I have seen situations in which senior management would talk behind closed doors and promotional announcements would soon follow.  I call this the secret squirrel method of succession planning.  Input is given by a chosen few and seldom is a full picture of the potential candidate’s skills and abilities (or lack thereof) known to people who sit at the C-suite level. Successful succession planning should be part of the performance management cycle and the way organizations do business.  

Four important aspects of succession planning can be summarized in the acronym “DO IT”: 

Development Focus 

On-Going Planning 



Development Focus

Succession planning is ultimately about development and making sure individuals have the knowledge and skill foundation to move into another role. Typically, organizations will use a simple tool like a 9-block (rating individuals on both performance (high, medium or low) and potential (high, medium, or low).  

This tool can help to uncover the shining stars who may be ready for the next role and your solid performers to develop. It also gives you a good look at who is not meeting standards and uncover opportunities to coach the person to changed behavior or coach them to a job that is a better fit. The key here is to follow this up with development planning to get people the training and experiences to prepare them for other roles.   

If you have a great individual contributor who you think could make a great manager… 
  • How can you have the person lead a project and learn to provide work direction?  
  • Are you willing to delegate task so others can broaden their skill set?  
  • Look at your organizational chart.  If you left tomorrow – Is there anyone who could take your place?  
  • What about your key positions?   
  • What are you doing to develop capabilities in all your staff members? 

Ongoing Planning

Development discussion should be an on-going conversation between staff and managers.  As a leader, taking time to care and have on-going career discussion is a part of your job. Coaching and developing others is a part of your job. Continuing to enhance the skills and capabilities of your team is also a part of your job. Some questions to ask yourself… 
  • What are you doing on a consistent basis to provide opportunities to help them gain skills needed for the next role?  
  • When is the last time you talked to employees about career development?  
  • How are you encouraging people to update skills?  
  • Are you looking at how your business is changing and what skills maybe needed in the future?  


Inclusion helps us to see a larger perspective and to gain insight from others.  Succession planning should be inclusive in two ways. First, from the leadership lens and then from the individual contributor lens. To begin, effective succession planning may start with a manager and then expand to include others in department leadership including team leaders, supervisors, managers, directors, and others. Bring department leadership together to have rich discussion about staff members skills, abilities, performance, and potential.  You as a leader may have one perspective and others in the department may see other things (both positive and negative). This is also a great way to level set employee performance.  You may think a team member is outstanding and another leader would rate them as competent.  What makes a person outstanding? Competent? When we include others and work as a management team to discuss succession, we are all on the same page.  This also allows others to look out for opportunities to develop staff across department.  These conversations could also identify high-potential employees and be rolled up into division and organizational discussion with the goal of including a variety of perspectives. 

The second aspect of inclusion is talking to the individual. On-going career discussion can also enhance motivation and engagement. Most people want to learn and grow and take on new opportunities. If you see potential to develop skills, talk with the person. “Jane, I have noticed how good you are with numbers, have you ever considered moving from the role of customer service to analyst?” A simple conversation opens the dialogue, shows you are taking an interest, and helps to start a person on a new path.  

Some questions to consider… 
  • Are they interested in that path?  
  • What are their hesitations?  
  • What resources could you provide to help them to gain skills and experiences?  
  • Who else could they talk with? Talking about career is not a promise of promotion, simply a conversation to explore development interests.  


Letting employees know where they stand is key to building trust and strong relationships. I once asked an HR Director where he would rate me on a 9-block (basically my performance and potential). The organization was in a time of change and I was looking for opportunities to grow and advance my career.  The 9-block was a tool we used all the time in our organization. His response was that 9-block was simply a planning tool and not appropriate for an individual conversation. Coaching and developing others was not his forte. Instead of having a rich and honest discussion, he froze and shut down. People want to know where they stand and what leaders think of their potential and performance. That is your job!  If the potential/performance is good, great – let’s move forward to get more skills and experience to prepare for another role.  If it is not good – tell me what I should be doing differently.  Also, if you have plans for someone to become a leader, it would be a good idea to ask them what they think? Are they interested? What would they like to learn? Assumption is the enemy of clarity. A transparent conversation is a way to be open and explore options. It is also a way to know if the person is not interested in leadership or a key role and if he/she would prefer to stay in a current role or explore other roles. 

Succession planning is not difficult but is does take time, attention, and intention. By placing development at the center, having on-going conversations, being inclusive in the process, and transparent you will take huge steps to putting success back into succession planning. DO IT! 

About the Author

Peggy Foster is the owner of Foster Learning LLC, a small but mighty HR consulting firm specializing in leadership development, executive coaching, and organizational effectiveness. Foster brings 20 + years of experience as a Human Resources Consultant, specializing in the areas of organizational effectiveness, learning and development, and mentoring programs.  Peggy is a certified Gallup Strengths Coach since 2008 and is passionate about helping others identify and play to their strengths every day. Foster has worked in a variety of settings including banking, non-profit, healthcare, telecom, and entertainment. 

With more than 35 years of experience in providing Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, Ascentis thought leaders have become a respected source for insights, tips, and innovations in the Human Capital Management (HCM) space.