Succession Planning

To most employees, Human Resources (HR) is the department that manages payroll and benefits or the one that translates leadership goals into staffing decisions. You, of course, are aware that another critical function HR can provide is succession planning—helping ensure continuity in operations as people enter and leave key positions. Consider these insights from HR professionals and business owners on the importance of succession planning and the steps that can make it a success.

Succession Planning Defined

At its heart, succession planning is preparing for the future so your organization keeps running when important team members leave.1 No one stays in the same job forever. Whether an employee leaves due to retirement, another opportunity or personal reasons, it’s important to be prepared to fill those positions quickly with qualified people.

“It is ultimately planning for your future self and what you want for your organization and your team,” says Shannon Walker, founder and president of WhistleBlower Security.2 She adds that many companies, especially small businesses, are “so busy running their day-to-day operations that they don’t think about what three or five years down the road looks like for their company.”

There are two sides to succession planning: identifying roles and skill sets that require a plan, and finding and training the right employees who are already in your organization. “What it really breaks down to is improving or creating talent-management opportunities. You’re securing your talent pipeline,” says Ty Stewart, president and CEO of Simple Life Insure.3

This talent pipeline can lead to seamless transitions when the time comes for one employee to leave and another to step into their place. Rather than facing a stressful period of uncertainty, your HR team can calmly enact the succession plan you’ve had in the making for years. The same process can help you create paths for promising employees who are rising quickly.

Why It Matters

Keeping key positions filled helps other employees maintain their sense of direction and momentum. By closing gaps quickly and decisively, your organization can stay productive and minimize attrition. “This planning is critical to supporting smooth operations, managing labor budgets and keeping morale high,” says Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding.4

Best Practices

Your succession planning will look different from anyone else’s because your organization is unique—but these expert best practices hold true across most situations.

  • Understand the roles: A job title doesn’t tell all the responsibilities an employee has taken on. Talk to employees to learn what their jobs actually entail. “In some cases, a team member may have unique skills that allow them to perform multiple roles within [one job title],” Alexis says. In this case, you may be looking for more than one person to fill their shoes someday. “Knowing the specific team members and their strengths and competencies will support this.”
  • Facilitate mentorships: One way to help entry-level employees build talent and expertise is to ask more experienced professionals to share their resources and knowledge. “We know from HR industry research that employees who participate in one mentor-mentee relationship are almost 15 percent likelier to be retained year after year over non- mentored colleagues,” says Stewart. Those retained employees will be better positioned to take on the roles of their predecessors later on.
  • Think like an entrepreneur: Entrepreneurs constantly look toward the future and work to be prepared for it. This is exactly the forward-thinking mindset you’ll need to adopt in succession planning, according to Alexis. Five years from now, your company and your industry could look very different from today. Being aware of change will help you prioritize the skill sets and various roles you will need in the future.

Mistakes to Avoid

Just as there are best practices successful HR professionals follow, there are common mistakes many people make in succession planning. Stay away from these pitfalls to make sure your succession plans run smoothly.

  • Don’t plan for every role: You don’t need to worry about a succession plan for every job in your organization. Rather than planning for roles that are easy to fill, focus on the key players in your company. High-level executives are an obvious choice, but don’t forget about the beloved manager who keeps morale high or the specialist who seems to have irreplaceable knowledge.
  • Don’t expect immediate results: It’s always satisfying to see the results of your work quickly, but that seldom happens in succession planning. You may have years of planning ahead of you before you get to see your work succeed. “The fruits of your succession-planning labor happen at exit time,” Stewart says. “You have to realize this is playing the long game, not something you can set up and measure effectively in a year or two.”
  • Don’t ignore succession planning: By far the biggest mistake an organization can make is choosing not to prioritize succession planning. It can take years to fully create and implement a strong succession plan, and the future is coming closer every day. Don’t put off planning until you’re reacting to a crisis instead.

Despite its importance, not every organization gives succession planning the attention it deserves. “Succession planning is often an overlooked but critical function within the HR department,” Walker says. “Learning about best practices and assessing business needs are key aspects of what any HR specialist should strive for.”