When People Leave: Do You Have a Succession Plan?

By Mike Raia Posted October 4, 2019


You've had that feeling. A key team member or executive unexpectedly announces they are leaving the organization for "new challenges" and gives their two-week notice. Your first thought is, "Uh oh. Who is going to replace them? How is their work going to get done?" Sometimes there is a clear replacement who can step in but often there isn't. Now what? 

What is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is a process for identifying personnel with the potential to replace the existing key staff in an organization when they leave. It also includes the development of current staff members into key roles before they’re needed, helping to minimize the disruption of a sudden vacancy.

Often, succession planning is thought of for key executives, but it makes sense to apply the concept to all members of an organization. In some cases, the need may be more critical but every role can cause continuity issues when vacated. If not, the question may be about the role itself.


Succession planning increases the availability of capable employees for key positions in an organization, commonly known as "bench strength." The overall goal of succession planning is to ensure that an organization can always fill a needed role with qualified employees. The underlying philosophy of succession planning is that top talent should be carefully managed for the benefit of the organization. This mindset must remain part of the leadership culture if succession planning is to be effective in providing organizational continuity.

workflow resources

The management of talent generally involves maintaining a series of feeder programs throughout an organization’s hierarchy. It should also develop methods of retaining key employees and assessing the impact their departure will have on the organization. Succession planning includes the recruitment of candidates outside the organization for positions at all levels. Organizations that practice succession planning also place greater emphasis on preparing employees for progressively more challenging roles.

A related consideration is the existence of "tribal knowledge," which we covered in another post. When someone leaves, important information leaves with them. It's critical to have systems in place to capture and share what employees know about the business and their own jobs. Read more on this topic here.


Most large businesses today have an executive assigned with the task of managing succession plans. They often based their processes on the model developed by Walter Mahler for General Electric during the 1970s, now considered the gold standard for succession plans. However, the specific methods of sourcing this work can vary greatly.

For example, some companies use consultants who are dedicated to succession planning, while others embed these tasks into the roles of human resources HR generalists. These HR roles are often separated into internal staffing and external recruiting, but some companies are trying to integrate all staffing functions. In other companies, succession management is integrated with performance management to simplify the duties of line managers.


The aging workforce of baby boomers is increasing the departure rate for senior workers, resulting in a greater need for succession planning. A 2018 survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that 40 percent of respondents work for companies that are analyzing the impact of workers over the age of 55 leaving their organizations in the next 10 years. However, many succession plans fall short of their goal of maintaining adequate bench strength. Common factors of organizations that achieve the greatest gains from succession planning include CEOs with a high degree of ownership in the company and leaders who are engaged in succession planning.


Clear objectives are critical for implementing succession planning. The core objectives of organizations with successful succession plans include identifying workers with the potential to assume greater responsibility. These organizations also provide personnel with the critical development needed to fill these roles. Furthermore, they have leaders who are engaged in this development and a personnel database to facilitate staffing decisions for key roles.

Companies with succession plans that are less mature may have additional objectives such as reducing the cost of recruiting employees from external sources. They may also need to dedicate more effort towards meeting the expectations of their existing employees with respect to career development. Additional goals of companies that are starting their succession plans include improving employee retention.


The specific practices that organizations use to implement succession planning can be varied and complex. They generally consist of a series of activities in the following categories:

  • Assessment
  • Talent Identification
  • Definition and Development


The assessment phase evaluates employees against the current criteria, with an eye towards future requirements. Many tools are used in this phase, but there is currently no widely accepted formula for evaluating an employee’s future potential. These tools include personality tests, cognitive tests, team-based interviews, and simulations. Some experts like Elliott Jaques argue for focusing on more specific criteria such as the ability to manage complexity. The Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) is often used for this purpose in succession planning.


The identification of future talent allows the organization to select the individuals who will be able to perform well in key roles. Companies who are new to succession planning often struggle to develop effective practices for identifying talent and end up relying on a single manager to make promotion decisions based on gut instinct. However, research shows that the use of multiple raters and methods are the best practices for assessment.

Leading companies in succession planning often supplement standard performance reviews with ongoing discussions among executives known as calibration meetings. Executives use these meetings to decide which employees are ready for larger roles based on their potential and readiness. Executives also anticipate vacancies and organizational realignments to use as opportunities for further developing the employees they select.

Definition and Development

The definition phase identifies the competencies needed for each role, including skill sets and motivation. The development phase consists of providing employees with the experience they need to advance. It also includes the identification of the key roles the succession plan must address.

Development may include formal training, online classwork, certification programs, management programs, etc. In addition, candidates might be given more responsibility or special assignments to push them to test their abilities.


The replacement of a top leader such as a CEO typically involves a team of advisors, especially when the executive is a founder who has been in that role for a long time. Advisors are essential for easing the transition between a company founder and a successor, which is most common in family-own businesses. This process requires more time than a standard replacement because the successor must earn the respect of employees.

The best solution in this scenario is usually to ease the successor into the role by sharing duties with the current officeholder and gradually assuming more of the position’s duties. Advisors are critical to the success of this transition because they can facilitate communications between executives, who are often emotionally affected by the pending departure of a founding member of the company. It also allows employees to become acquainted with their future CEO while adjusting to the other changes occurring during this period.


Succession planning has traditionally emphasized job assignments, but many companies are now focusing more on career development. The management of the key experiences that are critical for business leaders is increasing in importance, especially in North America. This trend is less pronounced in other regions such as Europe and Latin America.

The approach to succession planning used to be a confidential process to select only a few leaders at the top of an organization. Today, it’s more likely to be a transparent process that identifies many executives with the potential for filling key roles in the future. Modern companies also have a stronger tendency to include development programs known as talent management in their succession process. Talent management includes all phases of the employee life cycle such as recruiting, hiring, training and career development.

The Role of Workflow Automation

By its nature, workflow automation helps organizations deal with changes in staff, whether employees are moving around or leaving the organization. Business processes no longer live in someone's head, they live in a centralized repository and will keep running as the people performing the tasks change. Workflow automation helps ensure a smoother transition during succession processes.


The growing departure rate of senior management and role specialization is increasing the importance of succession planning. The need to maintain organizational continuity in the face of this trend means that businesses must begin preparing employees for their next positions before they need to be filled. Organizations should also implement succession planning throughout their entire hierarchy, rather than just the top. This approach means that employees are constantly developing their skills as long as they're with the company.

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. Connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michaelraia/


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