Agile development · Capability growth · Leading change

Succession planning as an idea whose time has come

Everywhere I go I am starting to notice consistent problems or patterns of behaviour that hold back some of the best people in the teams I work with. I think they are starting to rank right up their with the Peter Principle as ways to stop good people from reaching their true potential and really contributing value to the teams they work with.

And they are all related to the managers in the team not having enough time to talk about succession planning.

Managers spend a lot of time talking about the people in their team – who is good, who is not so good, who is happy and even how people are getting on with each other. But people are not talking about

  • What to do when people move on from the roles they are doing;
  • Wether people are still growing in their role and if the role is growing with them;
  • Whether people need more support to learn how to do their existing role better; and
  • Whether we need to start developing people now to be ready to fill the roles we will have in the future (2 years from now, 6 months from now or even in a month’s time when the big project goes live).

These are the topics that are meant to be covered under the heading of succession planning, and without them the following problems seem almost inevitable:

  • People get stuck in a role that no longer really challenges them because they do it so well and it is so important to us (eg they are the only one who can look after the backend production database. This is robbing the good people we have from the potential growth they could be getting in a different or extended role;
  • Companies are going outside to hire managers above a certain level because they lack the talent within the company to fill the most important and most rewarding roles in the organisation; and
  • Teams are becoming increasingly single point sensitive (the can’t afford to lose one particular person) and then go into crisis mode if that person moves on or even tries to go on holidays.

So, is there a sophisticated and powerful way to address all of this?

No, but there is a simple conversation that the management team can have on a regular basis. And if the management team have this conversation then it can support the performance and development discussions they are having with their team members – so those team members are aware of potential opportunities within the company in the future and have the chance to develop the skills (and experience) to fill those roles.

The management discussion

I think the succession planning discussion deserves to have its own meeting, otherwise it always gets left to the side while we address “urgent issues”. And I think it needs to involve the whole management team.

The meeting should start as all other meetings do:

  • People turn up and talk about the weather. Then the manager arrives 5 minutes late and apologises. he or she asks what has already been covered and the team reveal that they didn’t do anything because he or she was not there yet. (OK this part of the meeting can be improved).
  • We remind ourselves why we are here – The purpose of this meeting is to discuss the critical roles that we have in the team and the people either in them now or potentially in them in the future.

Cool – but how do we discuss all this? Well, here is a form to use:

As  a word document: Succession planning table

As a PDF: Succession planning table

And here is a possible agenda:

  1. What roles are critical in our team?  Of those, which ones are the most critical?
  2. Which roles have only one person in the team capable of doing them? How much would it hurt if that person won the lottery and retired?
  3. Now the hard part – for each critical role:
    • What is the name of the role?
    • Who is doing it at the moment?
    • How experienced are they in the role (draw a scale from [new – still learning – comfortable – mastering the role – ready for something new]?
    • How might the role be different 2 years from now?  How might it be different in 6 months?
    • Is there a development plan in place to keep the current incumbent (person in the role) growing?
  4. For each role
    • Who is ready to take over the role in an emergency? Or if the current incumbent is on holidays?
    • Who is ready to take over the role right now?
    • Who might be ready in 6 months?
    • Who might be ready in 18 months?
    • What outside options exist for filling the role, temporarily or permanently? For example are their consultants who could help in the short term, are their people in other parts of the organisation we could bring across, are there people we know of in other companies who might be able to fill the role?
  5. In addition to the roles we have today, are their any emerging roles that we might want to have in the future?
  6. For the people in the team who might be able to fill our critical roles in the future?
    • What development plans should we have in place to ensure they are ready for the role?
    • Do they actually have any interest in doing the role?

All that discussion will take some time and might take quite a bit of thinking to do properly. But if you have a go at it a few times I think it should all come together.  Of course you can also get your managers to do some preparation before the meeting … or you could cut the meeting back to only talk about agenda item 3 and 4 in the meeting and let each manager do the rest on their own.

Hopefully, even knowing that the management team think about this stuff will help motivation a little. And if you actually implement improved performance and development discussions as a result of this meeting then you should definitely see an improvement in the performance of your team.


2 thoughts on “Succession planning as an idea whose time has come

  1. James another question of relevance is ‘how experienced do they think they are in the role?’ often people’s perception of themselves is different to others, often despite feedback to contrary (positive and negative). This can affect retention and people comfort in taking a higher role. Personally I have had both senarios and of them often the people without the belief in themselves and their skills are the harder ones to convince and the greatest risk in succession planning.


    1. Good point. I have often met people who think they have mastered their role, but don’t really seem to do it very well. And surprisingly I have found the opposite just as often – people who are not very confident but are actually exceptional. That topic is definitely a rich one for development discussions and succession planning


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