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The way we succession plan is outdated and unnecessarily complex

The CIPD describes succession planning as a critical component of talent management and organisational strategy.  It’s well known in the HR Toolkit and almost every organisation I’ve worked for completes succession planning.  But at the same time, I hear these frustrations from organisations:


  • All the energy goes into running the process, but often nothing is done to develop the people.

  • The successors identified rarely move into the roles they are assigned to – so what was the point?

  • The process is not scalable below the senior levels

  • We have not shifted the dial on diversity in our leadership population

  • We invest in those that sit in the “top right” of the 9-box grid, and let’s be honest, do nothing with the rest.

  • The concept of “Potential” is unclear


If this is your experience too – what should you do instead?

The concept of succession planning isn’t wrong, but the way we succession plan is outdated and unnecessarily complex.   Here are 4 steps to dramatically improve your succession planning – as long as you can shift your mindset first!


Shift the intention of your succession plan.

Be clear on the business problem you’re trying to solve.  Simply “identifying critical roles and building talent pipelines to ensure a seamless transition when handovers are required” is not enough any more.

Research from the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report in 2020 found that:

  • By 2025, 85 million jobs could be replaced by machines, and 97 million new roles may emerge.

  • 50% of workers will need to reskill by 2025.

  • 40% of these workers will require reskilling programmes of up to six months to transition to their new role.

  • Core skills are set to change by as much as 40% by 2025

To stay ahead in the game, organisations should stop thinking of the unit of work in terms of fixed, static jobs, and start seeing them as a mix of skills that can be adapted as work keeps changing. This means the intention of succession planning should be “identifying the critical capabilities and building talent pools of those capabilities to ensure a seamless transition of people into roles/opportunites”.  Moving away from job roles and towards capabilities – because job roles will change.  It’s also easier to scale this approach to succession planning outside of Senior Roles.


Identify and Measure Capabilities

There are two steps here – knowing the capabilities you need, and knowing how much of those capabilities you already have.  There’s a danger this can become overwhelming very quickly, so the first step is crucial.


Focus on the critical capabilities needed to solve critical business problems – this could be an immediate problem or a future opportunity the organisation wants to grasp.  Do not try to capture every capability.  Only those that are most critical to the business.


Objectively assess and evaluate those critical capabilities that currently exist across the organisation.  A quality behavioural skills index similar to Harrison Assessments can do this very well, and its easily scalable.  This level of insight will help determine succession candidates as well as identify any at-risk roles, teams or business units.  Not a word about “Potential”, and not a 9-Box grid in sight; removing the frustration of Senior Leaders who don’t see the relevance of this process.


Develop Capabilities

Because you’ve objectively understood what critical capabilities exist in your organisation, you can pinpoint your development efforts to address those gaps.  Organisations that plan for skills or capabilities instead of Headcount develop better plans – from considering how to develop those capabilities and estimating the time and cost associated with upskilling or reskilling employees.  Making the development of “successors” so much easier, and more likely to happen.


Match People to Opportunities

Succession planning shouldn’t operate in a vacuum; it should be interwoven into a larger talent framework.  Include career conversation in your succession planning process, rather than an (often) afterthought of a performance review conversation.  These should be open conversations between employees and Leaders to uncover the individual’s aspirations, needs and preferences.  Include the critical capabilities in these conversations, and explore potential career opportunities through the lens of these capabilities. Resulting in an adult-adult conversation about aspirations and opportunities and removing the secrecy traditionally behind succession planning.  As opportunities arise, the organisation knows who has the necessary capabilities and who’s interested in those opportunities!

This reframe around succession planning, projects the organisation into the 21st-century labour market and the era of career consumerism.  The Measure of Success of succession planning is no longer whether individuals move into the roles identified for them – it’s whether the organisation has the critical capabilities to successfully compete – avoiding the accusation of succession planning being outdated and unnecessarily complex.  Now doesn’t that sound like a place you want to be?

Did you enjoy this blog?  You might also be interested in my other ideas and suggestions.  Take a look at my other blogs on my website.  You’ll find thought leadership on topics like leadership, talent development, personal development and the future of work.

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