As you look around your organization, you see that everything is going really smoothly. And then, it hits you. What if my CFO (or any key person) left? What if it happened tomorrow? After a moment of panic, you think, “I really need to do some succession planning.” You start making a list of the positions that are critical and . . . let me stop you there. While succession planning is a great idea, you have a few things to consider before you start naming names.
The first step is to understand the mission, vision and strategic direction of the agency and each key employee’s role within it. From there, you can evaluate your organization and its culture. For your current leadership team, beyond technical expertise, you will need to look at what soft skills make these key players successful in your organization. Is there a strong culture of collaboration? Shared leadership? You’ll also want to look at your key priorities and what it is that indicates whether the organization is being successful.
How do you come up with a plan? You will want to be sure the succession planning strategy dovetails with the organization’s mission and strategy. The plan does not need to be complicated but should be realistic and tailored to your organization. It must identify key positions and individuals. It should also identify those who are accountable for the success of the plan. Though your Governing Body should commit to developing leadership from within and regularly communicate their support of the plan, they should not develop a plan in isolation, even if the HR Manager is involved. Why? You want all of the key stakeholders involved. Organizational buy-in and support are critical. You may also wish to consider having some input from employees to encourage them to become ambassadors for the process.
To help define your approach and which positions to include, you want to be sure you really understand what each position involves and whether it is a key role. What role does the position have in driving the achievement of the strategic plan? If the position were vacant, would the organization’s core functions suffer? What are the key competencies? How specialized are those? What are the deliverables? What are the upcoming initiatives? What are the soft skills that each position requires? What are the interdependencies? In the future, will this position change and how?
Once you know the positions that are critical, how do you know which individuals might be able to succeed the incumbents? Ask the managers in their organization. For example, at McDonalds, former CEO Jim Skinner asked each of his managers for the names of two people who could fill their shoes. Not only do they have direct experience with these individuals, they will have a stake in their success once they begin working with their likely successors. By getting managers involved in developing employees, they become invested in and accountable for their success. This helps develop a culture in which employees contribute to each other’s success.
How do you develop the individuals? To determine what is needed to augment the experience the potential successors gain in their current roles, you will want to assess their current skills and note areas in which they can use more help. What are the competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities for which they will need training? Some possible training options include education reimbursement, training incentives, leadership training, or working group luncheons with management and employees that focus on particular administrative or operational processes. Do you have the resources to provide these in-house or do you need to search for vendors who can provide workshops, materials, or facilitators? In combination with mentorship, coaching and training, can you also offer ‘stretch’ assignments to help build those skills?
Once you have developed your plan, you should communicate it widely throughout your organization. Anticipate resistance and strategically work to overcome it by sharing successes and building support across the organization. With all of that in place, the organization is poised to accept and benefit from succession planning. You begin your implementation. Now you can relax, right? Not yet. Not at all, really. A succession plan will grow and change with the organization. On an ongoing basis, to support the plan, you will need to have a regular performance evaluation process that not only looks at performance but assesses potential and identifies possible next steps for employees as they grow. You will also need to monitor the effectiveness of the succession plan, developing metrics to assess the effectiveness of the programs you have implemented. Are employees gaining the knowledge that they need? Are employees who step into new positions able to do so smoothly? Were they a good choice? If not, where was the misstep? Is the program aiding in retention? Do employees feel valued? Is loyalty growing?
You will need to look at the gaps in succession. For which positions are internal resources inadequate? For these, you will need to identify external sources and recruitment plans.
Developing a succession plan will help your organization be prepared for loss of employees due to both retirement and also sudden, unexpected departures. It will help ensure that your organization and the employees who are part of it are positioned to achieve success.