It’s Time to Start Putting SUCCESS Back Into Succession Planning

Most HR professionals should know: the secret to succession planning is delegation. (Photo illustration by

I’ve written a lot recently on the low ROI of the annual performance management process many companies have in place today, along with the idea of how providing people with continuous feedback contributes much more to their development and growth than the formalized annual process does.

Continuous feedback: Good, but not enough

There is no doubt that continuous, agile feedback is a monumental improvement over once or twice a year feedback in terms of helping an individual to course correct and/or capitalize on what they’re doing right on a day-to-day basis.

But its not enough to give your company a competitive advantage.

To truly maximize deployment of talent, a company needs a way to talk about their talent with an eye towards the future, and that’s where succession planning comes in. Continuous feedback coupled with succession planning really puts some power behind the best use of talent — helping a company understand the talent they have today, the talent they need for the future, and how to best close the gap between the two.

Succession Planning done right

A lot of companies do succession planning only sporadically, or in reaction to a key player leaving. And even those who do it consistently often limit the discussion to those roles at the top, and keep the results from the discussions filed away in a password-protected spreadsheet.

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Neither of those approaches produce value for the company. But, when done correctly, succession planning can translate to a competitive advantage.

  1. Do it consistently: One-and-done is a waste of everyone’s time. To make a real difference to the bottom line, succession planning must be done consistently. The tools you use to support the discussions don’t matter nearly as much as the discussions themselves, and, the patterns that start to emerge as you have these discussions on a regular basis. Keep it simple, but keep at it. You’ll be amazed at how the benefits from these discussions increase over time, as groups become familiar with players they do not know. You’ll also get a cleaner line of site to top talent, regardless of organizational placement, ensuring that leaders don’t hoard their best players.
  2. Act on it: Succession planning can really only help your company to the extent you take action on the decisions made in these sessions. Documenting on a nice 9-box and spreadsheet won’t make any difference at all. Getting someone the experiences and training they need to move into a critical new role or support a new business vertical does makes a difference in a meaningful way. At the beginning of each succession planning discussion, take a bit of time to verify that the actions determined from the prior session(s) are underway, reinforcing that documentation is not the purpose, action is. Hold people accountable.
  3. Don’t reserve it just for the top jobs: A mistake many companies make is reserving these discussions for top leadership positions only. While discussions at that level are critical to the success of the business, they aren’t enough. Its fine to start at the top, just make sure you don’t stop there. The further you extend these discussions out into the organization, the faster you can transform the way your organization thinks about talent and talent development.
  4. Excellent performance doesn’t always equate to promotion: Succession planning discussions often uncover that “ah-ha! moment when you realize that a star performer may not have the potential for promotion into management. And that’s OK, because both deep and broad skills are important to a company’s success. All-star performers need nurturing and development, but not all stars of today have the ability or interest in navigating the shift from managing self to managing others, as my colleague Betsy Winkler describes in her recent post. The discussions in succession planning sessions help you to see the difference.
  5. Create your own definition: Everyone knows that a true competitive advantage is one that can’t easily be replicated by your competitors. One of the key outcomes of a well-run, consistenly executed and action-oriented succession planning discussion is that it enables the company to create their unique definition of what makes someone a high potential; putting words to the “secret sauce” of success at Company X.

By putting these tips into practice, you can ensure bottom line value from your company’s succession planning discussions. Remember, you can’t get the ROI without the I. Start to invest in succession planning discussions now, and you’ll be reaping the rewards before you know it!

Kristi Erickson is a Partner at PeopleResults, a consultancy that guides organizations and individuals to “start the wave” of change. She specializes in organizational design and talent development and has advised many clients on achieving competitive advantage through best use of their talent. Kristi was previously a Partner at Accenture, and she also serves on the board of Dallas Social Venture Partners. Contact her at


6 Comments on “It’s Time to Start Putting SUCCESS Back Into Succession Planning

  1. Great post, Kristi. Love the ‘aha’ moment you mention when there is the realization that great performers may not be on the succession plan…that performance and potential are really two different things. Also, agree that having a plan and then using it is often the biggest hurdle. Great reminders on how to make sure succession plans work!

  2. Nicely stated Kristi and so true. Successful companies and leaders live this but so many others just need the reminder or the knowledge to put into practice

  3. I like #4 – I call this person the “ace in place”.  They might not be on the fast track to promotion, but have the specific skills and experience you need where they are. They need to be nutured and developed too!

  4. Kristi – I especially like your point about making sure this is not just a one-time activity. Might as well not even waste time unless you make that commitment to consistently work through it!

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