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Future-Proof Succession Planning:
A Complete Guide for HR

An infographic with a pie chart showing the benefits and important of succession planning in HR.
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Hacking HR Team
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Posted on June 30, 2024

One-third of U.S. hiring managers foresee an increase in employee turnover this year, according to a recent report. In an uncertain and turbulent time, that means succession planning is more important than ever. 

Succession planning ensures that there’s a plan in place to keep operations running smoothly if and when vital employees leave. Without a succession plan, employees who have key roles in the organization can leave a significant and detrimental gap in the success of the business. 

Succession planning can make or break the resilience of the organization during periods of change. Workforce changes can be unpredictable, so it’s important to take the time to create a future-proof succession plan sooner rather than later. 

What Is Succession Planning?

In a nutshell, succession planning is the process of planning and preparing for the company’s future, specifically related to who will take over major roles within the company. It is a component of strategic human resource management (SHRM), which emphasizes the future success of an organization and works to align HR practices with wider organization goals. 

The process of succession planning involves identifying and developing existing talent that can step into critical roles to keep the organization running smoothly and promote from within instead of making an outside hire for top-level roles.

Succession planning aims to create a pipeline of successors for high-level roles who make significant contributions to the organization as a whole, or those whose absence would cause detriment to the company. For this reason, succession planning typically only happens for high-level roles, not individual contributors or middle managers. 

Why Succession Planning Is Imperative

For any company that wants to stay resilient and adaptable, succession planning is essential. Regardless of company size, industry, or location, any company can benefit from succession planning. However, some organizations may want to place a particular emphasis on succession planning, such as multigenerational workforces, where more high-level employees may be leaving the workforce within the next few years. 

If one of your top-level executives revealed they were leaving tomorrow, the lack of a succession plan can throw the entire company into chaos and have a negative impact on output, productivity, morale, and trust.  

On the flip side, though, if there was a concrete plan in place to fill the gap and cause minimal disturbance to the organization, that can improve many areas of the company and maintain employee trust in the resiliency and preparedness of the company.


A pie chart with the Hacking HR logo in the center divided into 4 slices showing the benefits of succession planning: promotes leadership contiinuity; builds organizational resilience; saves time and money; prioritizes employee development.
Benefits of Succession Planning

Benefits of Succession Planning

There are many benefits to succession planning, including:

  • Leadership continuity: One of the most important elements of succession planning is ensuring leadership continuity if a leader retires, leaves abruptly, or is promoted. A solid succession plan can reduce the amount of disturbance that is caused to the organization and keep everything steady. 

  • Organizational resilience: Succession planning, especially as a pillar of SHRM, helps develop and maintain organizational resilience and keep things focused toward the future. It keeps organizations agile by ensuring that in the face of change, the organization is ready to adapt and evolve to continue meeting business needs.

  • Employee development: Succession planning and employee growth go hand-in-hand, since potential leaders are developed to hone the skills they need for leadership decisions. Together, employees and HR can help craft a clear journey for their career, making development more targeted and applicable.

  • Employee attraction and retention: An emphasis on learning and development can help attract and retain employees who can envision a future for themselves at the company. Especially in today’s age, employees place a lot of value on the growth opportunities of a company, and top talent isn’t afraid to leave a company that doesn’t properly invest in the development of employees.   

  • Time and money savings: Succession planning, and hiring internally in general, greatly reduces time and resources spent replacing top-level employees. Having a succession plan in place reduces money spent on recruiting, time spent in interviews, and time to hire. Plus, since it’s the organization’s own employees, there’s less of a chance of a costly bad-fit hire. 

Action Steps For HR

Succession planning takes time, energy, and resources, and forces HR to think critically about the future of the workforce and how it might affect the success of the organization. 

Although there is not a one-size-fits-all plan, succession planning has a few clear-cut steps that can be adapted to fit the needs of individual organizations. 

1. Assess Current and Future Needs

One of the first – and most important – steps is to look at your current business needs and forecast future needs to get your finger on the pulse of the organization. This includes looking at the critical roles that would have a significant impact on the organization if they left, individual employees who are currently in those critical roles, and the future needs of the business. 

Here are a few ways HR can forecast future needs:

  • Look at market trends and predictions to understand what challenges the organization may face in the future

  • Look back on historical changes within the organization and see how succession plans were handled previously – and how successful they were

  • Look at employee data about who’s currently in leadership positions when that may be projected to change

It’s important to note that all the future predictions you may have for the organization are not destined to come true, and your succession plan should be flexible and adaptable to fit unplanned needs. 

2. Define Succession Goals and Role Criteria

Once you understand where your organization currently is and where you want it to go, you can set objective goals, deadlines, and criteria for succession plans. 

You can follow the SMART framework to set objective goals and get measurable results. SMART goals are: 

  • Specific

  • Measurable

  • Achievable

  • Relevant

  • Time-bound

When specific roles are identified, it can be helpful to look at the existing employee in that role and take stock of the criteria needed for the successor. This may also lead to the decision to modify roles for successors or scrap old roles altogether and create new ones. Identifying criteria for an effective successor can help tailor employee development and identify skills needed to master the role. 

It may also be useful to create a timeline for goals, such as a roadmap of tasks and development up to the point a successor takes over, which can be baked into SMART goals. For example, one SMART goal may be: “We will identify and assess 5 high performers who would be suitable for the VP role by the end of Q3.”


A Venn diagram titled 'Identifying Top Talent in Succession Planning' shows three circles overlaping with the text 'Top Talent' in the center: 1. skillset; 2. potential; 3. performance.
Three facts to consider when identifying top talent.

3. Identify Top Talent

Once you have objective goals and relevant roles, it’s time to find high-performers that may be suitable to include in succession planning. 


When thinking about top talent and potential successors, consider an employee’s potential, performance, and skillset: 

  • Potential: Do they have innate abilities to perform their duties? For the skills they don’t possess, do they have the potential to learn and execute the necessary skills?

  • Performance: Do they consistently exceed expectations, or do they underperform, despite competency and ability? In what scenarios do they seem to perform at their best, and when do they underperform?

  • Skills: Do they have a specific or relevant skill set, or noticeable gaps in their skillset that would hinder the succession plan? 

When identifying top talent, you should be transparent with the succession planning process and the potential you see in employees. Keeping them informed throughout the process can help boost morale and ensure a smoother succession process when the time comes.

When building out your plan, you should also consider the impact that a promoted employee leaving will have on their team. Consider alerting the manager when the decision is made, and offering resources or extra support during the transition time.

4. Tailor Development Plans 

Once identified, you can begin to create a growth and development plan to bridge gaps in skills and help foster a leadership mindset in employees. This can include mapping out a development path and setting SMART goals for employee development that ensure that successors are equipped to handle the role before they need to jump into it.

Consider different development opportunities, such as:

  • Coaching or mentoring from leaders, especially those with similar duties as the potential role

  • Routine continuous learning, such as classes or certifications for technical skills

  • Leadership development opportunities to help hone soft skills

While creating a development plan, HR can also use psychometric tests and skills assessments to get a benchmark for where employees are at the beginning of their development and set goals for where they should be before taking over a new role. 

5. Monitor Success and Iterate

As you watch the succession plan play out, it’s important to measure results and monitor the success of the plan. 

Consider asking the following questions when a succession plan has been put in place:

  • Going into their new role, did the employee have all the necessary skills and resources needed, or was further training necessary?

  • Did the succession cause a significant disruption in operations? Where did disruptions happen, and what caused them?

  • How long did the succession process take, and what slowed it down?

From there, you can work to iterate on your succession strategy and continue to monitor results. Gather feedback from those involved in the process – not just the successor, but also the team they’re currently on and the team  

Considerations and Challenges

Succession planning means taking a proactive approach to workforce management. Like with any future planning, it doesn’t come without its challenges and considerations to be successful. 

Succession planning relies on anticipating future business needs, which can be easily swayed by external factors, such as economic turbulence or market changes. 

Even with all the necessary preparation, successors may still fumble through the first few months of their new role and may need further development to succeed, which should be accounted for in a succession plan. 

Here are some questions to consider when creating a succession plan strategy:

  • Are there goals for both planned and unplanned departures (i.e. if an employee leaves unexpectedly)? 

  • Are both short- and long-term needs and goals addressed?

  • Have you properly prepared employees for changes, or do you expect resistance from employees?

  • Does your succession plan include backup plans if employees can’t or don’t want to perform in their role as successors?

  • Do you have senior leadership buy-in and necessary resources for your plan?

Best Practices For Succession Planning

Succession planning is different depending on unique organizational needs, but the general steps and practices of succession planning are the same. Here are a few general best practices to make sure your succession plan is effective, efficient, and realistic. 

  • Make it manageable: Break succession plans down into more manageable chunks to not overwhelm leaders or employees, and implement initiatives in smaller stages.

  • Keep it simple: Lean towards keeping the plan simple, but provide details and clarification whenever necessary.

  • Use tech: Use HR tools such as AI to lessen the load on HR, such as using generative AI to create and tailor employee development plans

  • Get input from employees: Ask for feedback from employees and leaders through every step of the process, not just during designated feedback sessions or debriefs. 

  • Don’t just choose employees closest in rank: One benefit of succession planning is the ability to help high-potential employees grow into a new skill set, so consider taking a chance on an employee you might not have considered otherwise, which can also help expand your pool of talent to more diverse employees. 

  • Conduct trial runs: Trial runs can be an important part of the succession planning process and can help identify areas that need to be worked on before the successor actually takes on the new role.  

Conclusion

Succession planning can ensure that current and future organizational needs are met, which can improve the entire workforce. It ensures that the organization is resilient and future-proof by identifying and developing top talent into leaders for key roles. 

Succession planning is a crucial part of a SHRM approach that takes multiple steps, including identifying top talent, developing talent into leadership roles, and setting measurable goals to help limit disruption caused by workforce changes. 


Enroll in 'Leading HR'

The 'Leading HR' certificate program is meticulously crafted to provide the tools, insights, ideas, data, stories and experience to enable senior HR executives and leaders to navigate the complexities of the modern workplace and drive strategic organizational change.

In this training program for Human Resources leaders, attendees will explore how to align workforce planning with organizational strategy and future needs, and master workforce planning techniques, anticipating future workforce requirements, aligning workforce strategy with business objectives, and managing talent risks and opportunities.

Learn more about 'Leading HR' here.

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