ATD Blog

Setting the Stage for Succession Planning

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Succession planning is a future-focused endeavor designed to ensure knowledge upgrades become an instinctive part of everyone’s positional responsibility. Another proviso is providing support for those high achievers who are candidates for increased job responsibilities.

As an organization considers succession planning, it is essential to form a cross-departmental succession planning team (SPT) that consists of executive leadership or senior leaders, senior managers, and Human Resources staff whose purpose is to establish the objectives and design of the program components.

The biggest challenge in implementing effective succession planning is deciding where to start. This is followed closely by building commitment to the process. One way to encourage participation is to frame a checklist of sequential questions that follow the natural workflow for each position being considered for inclusion in the succession plan.

Jones Performance Management Diagram Part 2.png
The SPT then works its way through the checklists outlined above until each member can confidently answer “yes” to all 10 points of the sequence.

Any “no” or “don’t know” responses in the performance management section of the checklist should trigger an exploration of who is currently occupying that position and what training or development they may need to produce a “yes” response in the future.

Any “no” or “don’t know” responses in the process improvement section of the checklist should instigate a deeper dive to determine which part(s) of the process needs to be upgraded to attain the desired outcome.

Satisfactory completion of these two steps will take multiple sessions, so don’t be disappointed at the lack of results the first time out. After several trials, it should become a natural part of the succession planning process to review key positions whenever the SPT meets.

The overarching purpose of the SPT is to support the talent management system by:

  • Identifying critical positions and highlighting potential vacancies
  • Selecting key competencies and skills necessary to ensure continuity
  • Focusing on workforce training and career development to meet future needs
  • Preventing the loss of critical institutional knowledge

As the SPT will soon discover, succession planning facilitates long-term commitment of key employees, which is beneficial to the individuals and the company. Those employees with high potential selected for development are motivated to go the extra mile and stick around longer with the understanding that they have a future with the organization.

These steps will help plan for future vacancies and ensure mission continuity:

1. Create a list of key roles or key positions and when they are due to be vacated.
2. Assess key competencies that a replacement will need to be successful in the position.
3. Develop a list of individuals who are ready for a specified position in a given period of time.
4. Develop an action plan or career pathing for developing future candidates for critical positions.
5. Create a list of the experience each position requires and catalog it for future use.
6. Document mistakes and lessons learned that will help improve the planning process.

The SPT should develop an effective communication timeline to educate and raise the level of awareness regarding the benefits of successful succession planning. To help in developing a sound communication strategy, the SPT should consider using climate surveys and focus groups to identify concerns and pinpoint benefits for each of the vulnerable positions.

More importantly, the SPT should make a concerted effort to identify those high achievers who might be hidden because their efforts are taken for granted. It is essential that you recognize and reward high performers because they are the backbone of every successful enterprise, those self-directed high achievers who are the go-to people you count on to get things done.


These consummate producers provide the ingenuity for new ideas and the initiative that drives sustainable performance. Harnessing their personal power is the key to long-term prosperity.

Unfortunately, such employees are limited in number and difficult to recruit and retain, which is why noted management theorist Joseph Juran referred to them as the vital few.

As you scan the horizon in search of the vital few, keep an eye out for those who:

  • Motivate those around them by their determination to succeed.
  • Operate intuitively with little direction and limited supervision.
  • Accept challenging assignments that others cannot or will not do.
  • Seek opportunities to grow personally and develop professionally.
  • Expand their relational effectiveness by sharing information and expertise.
  • Reach across jurisdictional boundaries to form alliances and build coalitions.
  • Encourage others by their propensity to enjoy what they do and have fun doing it.

Note of caution: Be aware that high performers are often at risk of losing effectiveness when promoted. This is a classic example of the Peter Principle that says, “One can become incompetent through promotion.” To counteract the negative effects of advancement, it is essential to develop succession plans and promotion policies specifically for the vital few based upon their personal influence rather than on their positional power.

If you are interested in Succession Planning, you may want to review the Succession Planning Basics, 2nd Edition book from ATD Press.

About the Author

Tom Jones has studied organizations and the people they employ long enough to have a keen sense of what it takes for both to prosper. He writes and speaks about those leadership challenges and management perplexities that ultimately determine the success or failure of today’s customer-sensitive workplace.

In his new book, Doers: The Vital Few Who Get Things Done, Tom shows employers how to create a workplace where doers flourish. He also shows doers how to seek out an organization where their eagerness to succeed is recognized and rewarded.

Tom holds a doctoral degree in organization and leadership from the University of San Francisco. He has lectured at six universities and currently teaches Principles of Management for the College of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay.

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