Succession Planning From 5,000 Feet

Charlie Martin is an experienced executive coach and leadership development facilitator.

A key question to ask related to succession planning is, why are you doing it? Another question might be, what do you want the successors to be prepared to do? These two questions fit well together and if they are both not answered with the best thinking you can muster, your succession planning effort could be just checking another box in your organizational life.

Let’s start with the why question? Why are you thinking about a succession plan and why now? What has happened in the life of the organization that brings the need for succession planning forward? If it is part of the normal annual planning routine and this is the time it is usually done then the answer is easy. This is what we always do or have always done so it’s business as usual. Let’s assume succession planning is not part of an annual planning routine. The thought process then becomes more interesting.

Why are you thinking about creating a succession plan now? There could be a variety of reasons. Here are a few things that you may be considering:

  • You workforce seems to have suddenly become very senior and they are starting to retire at a rapid rate.
  • You are envisioning significant intellectual capital disappearing and don’t have a plan in place for replacing it.
  • The demands on your senior leaders are changing rapidly and you are not certain they can keep up.
  • You’re age and experience based back up leaders don’t seem to have the same passion about leading that you have experienced in the past.
  • Your overall workforce is becoming heavy with millennials and you know that to keep them you are going to have to demonstrate relatively near-term career opportunities.
  • You somehow finally had time to take a breath and step back from the day to day action and you don’t like what you see relative to your leadership pipeline.

Thinking through and responding to the above realizations and perhaps many more may lead you toward answering your why? Now, what do you want the successors to be prepared to do?

A couple issues that are facing all organizations now is the explosion of technology and the growing diversity of the workforce.


What do you need to do about succession planning, now that it has become top of mind and you have surfaced some of the why question? You may want to take the following actions:

  • Determine where you are now in terms of being able to respond to the circumstances you identified when you were thinking about why you might need a succession plan. If you have a solid HRIS system you may be able to determine what your leadership pipeline looks like easily and if not, it may be a bit of work. Either way, you need to have a clear understanding of where you are in terms of your initial needs and potential qualified people in the pipeline and the level of data you have about each person that is a potential candidate to move up.
  • What capabilities do you believe your new leaders will need? How big a factor is the rapid rate of change in technology? How important is the globalization explosion? How much political savvy will be required in the future? What capabilities do the people in your pipeline have? What changes do you anticipate in your organizational governance? If the current people in your pipeline are not prepared what can you do to prepare them? Is it perhaps time to look outside the organization for candidates? Is a fresh perspective needed?
  • As you decide to work on developing a succession plan what impact will your culture have on the development of the plan? Do you have clear diversity initiatives that will impact your planning? Do you have clear mission, vision and values to guide you in developing the succession plan?
  • Is your strategic plan current? How far out does it go? Is it truly guiding your mission? Is it visible and referred to often throughout the organization? Have people in the pipeline been engaged in developing the strategic plan?

This quick very subjective view from 5,000 feet is intended to be a thought starter. Every organization is at a different place in terms of what they are doing about succession planning, if anything? A couple issues that are facing all organizations now is the explosion of technology and the growing diversity of the workforce. Millennials will make up around seventy five percent of the workforce by 2025 and gen Z is coming up fast. Baby Boomers and Gen X are moving toward retirement and taking their knowledge with them. These two things alone are reason enough for questions about what organizations will look like in the future and what kind of people with what kind of skills will be needed to lead them.

The need for succession planning is stronger than ever and waiting until it is convenient to start the process will be flirting with significant challenges before you are ready.

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