Three Reasons Why Succession Plans Fail

“Why don’t we have anyone internally who is ready to fill this role?”

Succession planning is something that most large organizations know they should do.  And yet it is one of the least well executed processes in an organization.  Here are three things that are wrong with succession planning in today’s companies:


  1. Succession planning is an event

In most organizations the “Talent Review” is scheduled for one day a year. The Talent or HR team spend months preparing information by meeting individually with the executives to gather their individual input on all of their top leaders and top talent.  The forms are updated (If you are lucky there is an HR system that has the ability to maintain most of the key information, but many organizations still keep this information independently of IT systems). Then all the information is printed and put into a binder for every executive attending the meeting.

  1. The talent discussion is based on stories, not behaviors and results

Even though the HR team focuses on competencies, or key behaviors, in their meetings with executives and it is captured on the forms, the executives will often describe the person by sharing a story about them.  Because the executives don’t see the connection between the identified behavior and their employee’s performance they resort to what feels familiar – a story.  The result is that the other leaders will only know what is contained in that story, which often does not reflect that person’s strengths, but rather an anecdote from their career. The result is that it is not clear what the person’s strengths are or what needs to be done to develop them for their next role or opportunity.

  1. There is no follow up

Once the meeting is over the binders will go into a locked drawer (the information is too confidential to leave out) and everyone will go on as before.  Once in a while an executive will follow up with their team and have great conversations with them about development and what they should be focused on for their career.  But those conversations are not easy and more often than not the executive will not have the conversation, or they expect that someone in HR will have the follow-up conversations.

What should an organization to do for succession planning?  Succession planning and leadership development should be part of every day business rhythms.  The executive team should be clear on what knowledge, skills and competencies are required at each level of leadership.  All leaders should complete an assessment of the identified knowledge, skills and competencies at their level and the level above them.  Then the following process can be applied to their business:

  1. During the selection of leaders for key projects, initiatives or teams, the executive team should focus on which leader needs that opportunity as part of their development. The knowledge, skills and competencies identified in their assessment should be noted and the ones they need to develop should be highlighted.  The executive team should be explicit with that leader why they were selected for the role and what development should take place during the project/initiative/team lifecycle.
  2. In most companies there is a regularly scheduled project/initiative review. At the end of each review the executive team should go into session for one hour.  They should have the leader’s assessment, and the identified areas for development. They should identify what that leader has done well (aligned to the specific areas they identified during selection), and what they haven’t done well.  It is important to note progress as well as offer support and solutions for additional development.
  3. One executive should then give that leader their feedback. This should rotate between the executives as it is the responsibility of the entire executive team, not just the leader’s supervisor or chain of command.  This way all executives have a clear understanding of the leader’s capabilities and are comfortable providing feedback.  This is one of the best ways for executive teams to get to know the top talent in their organization.

If people are critical to the success of an organization, this is the best way for executives identify, evaluate and develop talent on an ongoing basis.  Then when there is an opening they will all have a good sense of who is ready to step into that role and how best to support that new leader during their transition.

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