Many leaders and organizations have annual or semi-annual discussions about succession planning. For some, this is part of the process to maintain a robust talent pipeline. For others, it’s merely lip service because succession planning seems too complicated, a huge time strain, or not worth the effort. Plus, many of us have been taught to think if someone else succeeds, it means we can’t or it might take away our own opportunities. That’s certainly not true and today, I’ll tell you why succession planning is essential for organizations, leaders, and individual contributors.
Succession planning is often thought of as a process for replacing, promoting, back filling leadership roles. However, my approach is much broader as I believe it’s essential to have a process for replacing talent at all levels of your organization.
Why succession planning matters for organizations
Losing an “irreplaceable” member of the team-especially unexpectedly-can easily wreak havoc on an organization. Mercer’s 2023 Canadian turnover survey found that the average voluntary and involuntary turnover rate in Canada was 15.5% and 4.1% respectively. Executives had a voluntary turnover rate of 3.5%. Gallup reports that the cost of replacing an employee is between half and two times that employee’s annual salary.
These numbers are staggering and support the case for building a discipline for succession planning that incorporates all roles in the organization. If almost 20% of your workforce can turn over in any given year, why wouldn’t you plan for this?
As an executive coach, I often get to see the results of incomplete or non-existent succession planning. I recently worked with a client who had a significant senior role to replace. There were two internal candidates and they also searched externally. They were nervous about the internal candidates because they didn’t have the experience of leading such a large portion of their portfolio. The other one had the experience, but also had a real deficit with emotional intelligence; they were afraid that person would step into the role and immediately ruffle feathers and be oblivious to their negative impact.
With proper succession planning, these internal candidates could have been much better prepared because the process identifies the mentoring, coaching, and skills necessary to elevate each person for their next important role. Most things can be learned, but some things-like emotional intelligence-are harder to incorporate once someone takes on a new leadership role. (For more information on how to evaluate and improve your EQ, consider the EQ 2.0 assessment and debrief, available through WIL Empowered.)
Finally, succession planning rolls up into brand management efforts. When someone leaves your organization, what will they say? Will they vent on Glassdoor about the lack of growth opportunities? Or will they tell everyone, “I had a great experience and they really invested in my learning.”
Why succession planning matters for people leaders and individual contributors
If you’re a people leader, the challenges mentioned above are ultimately your responsibility. Wouldn’t it be less stressful to implement a program that mitigates the risks of turnover rather than going into crisis-management mode every time someone gives notice?
Plus, succession planning isn’t just about the company, it helps your career too. I encourage my clients to walk away from the limited belief that identifying a successor makes them less valuable-because that mindset is a trap. In reality, by making sure your area of responsibility has the talent and skills necessary to continue in your absence, you free yourself up to take on the next role. I spent my entire career building a reputation by doing this and it afforded me many great opportunities. The company would send me into a market/region/country to clean it up, and get sales moving in the right direction, and I would immediately find my replacement, train them, and ready them to take my place. It was a smart strategy not only for my own career development but for the company as well.
Let me say it another way:
You can‘t get promoted if you’re irreplaceable.
And finally, succession planning provides the opportunity to feel the joy of mentorship and/or sponsorship. Imagine helping people gain the skills and confidence they need to succeed on their desired career path. This is the type of intrinsic reward that keeps leaders fired up about their work. When I was the VP of Sales and Operations at Marks and Spencer, our real estate broker, John told me, “They’re looking for a president in Canada for the Bombay Furniture Company. You should apply.” I resisted at first, but I did apply and got the job. And all these years later, I am still grateful for what his leadership, encouragement and mentorship did for my career.
Story: The leader who wouldn’t promote her star performer
When I worked at the Bombay Furniture Company, I had a leader who had a real superstar on her team-except she didn’t want to promote this superstar. I relocated this person out from under this particular leader because I knew if didn’t, we would lose her to other opportunities. It was an easy decision on my part as I could see her talent was being hidden away, and her boss certainly didn’t appreciate it at the time. When Bombay closed, this superstar joined another organization as a vice president. If I hadn’t moved her out from under that person, would she have been recognized for her skills, shown what her true capabilities were, and then been able to grow into that senior leadership position? Who knows but I believe because she was able to show her true potential it enabled her to go even further in her career. I recently spoke to this superstar and though it’s been more than 15 years since I relocated her out of a go-nowhere situation and her career has flourished since then, she still appreciates my succession-planning approach.
How to get started with succession planning
Some organizations are great at succession planning. Some are not; they might have semi-annual discussions about who the next leaders are, but this philosophy doesn’t always permeate the organization and often don’t take a 360° view of succession planning, or they might not do anything and are always scrambling to hire the next person, allowing great talent and knowledge to leave the organization. However the more succession planning becomes a discipline and is focused on as an individual and at an organizational level, the easier it becomes.
So, how do you get people into a regular review process for succession planning? Start with the ideas below.
Ask the sabbatical question – On your own team, ask each person, “If you went on vacation for a month, who would be your backup?” The answers to this question should be enough to convince you succession planning is required and important. For each role, I recommend having two or three people identified as successors.
Bring succession planning into quarterly review meetings – Effective leaders solve the typical problems of performance reviews by breaking them into quarterly review meetings. This is a great time to incorporate and normalize succession planning discussions.
Explore the issue with questions like:
- Why do you think Billie, Kirk, and Joan would be the best people to back you up?
- What kind of support or resources would each person need to feel confident backing you up?
- What skills and experiences are you looking for in the next three to six months?
Compile your information in one place – Once you’ve had your conversations, organize the information in a chart or even an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of it all. This will give you an easier way to keep track of your succession planning activities and reduce any overwhelm you may experience. You should now have a grid of the skills people have, need, and want to gain, which makes it easier to see patterns and actually start building out your talent pipeline.
Start talking to others in the organization – Now it’s time to do some professional matchmaking. Connect people on your team to the resources, mentors, and activities they need to fulfill their backup positions and excel in the next step on their desired career path. Make introductions, put them in front of the right people, and talk to HR about how to overcome any common skills gaps through training or other resources. I believe the human resources team must play an integral role in any succession planning exercise.
Keep going – Succession planning starts as a project and morphs into a culture of investment and opportunity for the people. Keep it up and never forget to make finding your own replacement part of that program.
Final thoughts about embracing succession planning
Many people have told me, “Vicki, I just don’t have time for succession planning.” But do you have time to not do it?
Succession planning is great for the organization and the individuals within it. Though it may take some time to build these disciplines into your culture, a succession plan is well worth it. When we lift others up with support, mentorship, and seeing their potential, it lifts us up too. And that feels fantastic!
If you’d like to increase your succession planning skills at an individual and/or organizational level, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for a meet-and-greet discovery call. And if you’ve already built this discipline into your organization, I’d love to know your approach; your approach to succession planning, what best practices do you use, and why?
Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.
I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.
WIL Empowered is a community where we focus on all four aspects of leadership development through coaching, networking, peer-to-peer mentoring and developing power skills. Our mission is to help individuals develop the skills, motivation, and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.
Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.