Lessons Learned: Succession Planning Change Management

Friday, December 16, 2016

At first blush, succession planning in the healthcare industry would appear to be a logical way for improving patient care and employee engagement. Yet it is a difficult concept to sell. The urgency to implement is diminished by healthcare leadership’s many competing priorities; it is a classic case of not seeing the forest because of the trees.

This blog post shares lessons learned. For starters, meet your organization where they are. Succession planning is a new way of thinking how to quantify and qualify talent potential and readiness. It introduces new words, concepts, and processes. What’s more, that learning curve can be overwhelming.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate

As talent management professionals, it is our responsibility to guide our leaders and organizations. Ideally, we help them connect the dots between succession planning and desired business outcomes. One way is to demonstrate how talent development isn’t a new or additional responsibility. Effective leaders intuitively develop their employees by assigning projects and providing continued performance management. Another way to illustrate the value of succession planning is to quantify the cost of turn over. Keep in mind when messaging is absent, organizations become highly creative in connecting those dots.

Succession planning holds the promise of high effort/high yield. Contrary to popular belief, some of those yields are immediate. Talent review dialogs provide valuable insight into how an executive’s direct reports lead and manage. For example, try coaching executive leaders how to see value in the talent review exercise. Prompt your executives to observe their direct reports/leaders in action.

  • How well do they know their business requirements?
  • How strategic and forward thinking are they?
  • In today’s age of engagement, how connected are they to their team?

Use metrics that make sense. Focus on key process indicators to help your organization see the quick wins and the long term benefits through trending.

Develop Key Metrics

Leaders will need to examine several key metrics, including:

  • ·number successors for critical positions
  • percent of ready now successors
  • ·number high potentials
  • high potential movement
  • success of successor placement
  • promotions within succession plan.

Be prepared to speak to seemingly counterintuitive data. For example, large scale metrics like turn over have a lag that may impede succession planning implementation momentum.

Be Patient With Change

It can be frustrating when first implementing a succession planning initiative. Succession planning is a new vocabulary and way of thinking, and your organization’s leadership may have a knowledge and skill deficit.  

Consider the journey of a large urban Midwest academic medical center, which demonstrates how to meet your organization where they are and guide them to success. Every six months the organizational development consultant (OD), human resource business partner (HR), and hospital senior leaders would meet to review their talent pool. Over a two year period, I observed how the organization’s biannual talent reviews evolved from awkward discussion to thoughtful planning.

We transcribed those discussions, identified the themes and presented the findings. OD and HR helped to connect the dots for senior leadership by “translating” their efforts into the traditional talent management lingo. At first, we used the organization’s common language. And over four iterations of talent reviews, they methodically transitioned to the language of formal competencies and measurement.

Top Development Opportunities



Decision Making

Business Acumen

Revenue Cycle

Emotional Intelligence

Leading Others

Enterprise Exposure

Enterprise Exposure

Compelling Communication


Strategic Thinking

Driving Execution

The result was senior leadership owning the process. They were not only speaking the language of leadership competencies, they understood the value of clear competency definitions and the importance of measurement. For instance, using promotions and purposeful placement as talent development tactics became a norm.

Top Development Actions



Project Management

Project Management

Stretch Assignments



Formal Coaching

Coaching / Mentorship

Purposeful Placement



Moving Forward

So what are the key take aways for other healthcare organizations? How can they increase Organizational buy-in for succession planning?  

  • Communicate: Consider an internal marketing plan to manage the message and expectations.

  • Educate: Just-in-time job aids provide tangible examples of readiness and potential definitions.

  • Eradicate: Remove barriers to talent assessment and development support tools to demystify process. Employee development is a shared responsibility.

In addition, here are a few suggestions to reduce executive champion anxiety:

  • Illustrate big picture involvement and align to organizational strategic business goals. Be clear in short and long term asks of them and their direct reports.
  • Demonstrate how succession planning and proactive talent development positively impacts patient safety, quality and service through data.
  • Accelerate their ease by providing them speaking points for cascading the messages through the entire talent development cycle.
  • Facilitate adoption of purposeful talent management by providing a transparent talent pool database. 

Bottom line: Take every opportunity to reinforce the value of succession planning as it impacts your organization’s outcomes. Recognize that people learn differently; therefore, your leaders will need to process information differently. Communicate in timeline terms to help pace goals. Reinforce the cyclical nature of talent development to avoid the choppiness of a “one and done” mentality.  

Want to learn more? Join Christina and William Rothwell January 13, 2017, for the ATD Webcast "Assess and Develop Potential Talent On Succession Planning."

About the Author
Christina Barss is the corporate director of leadership and learning at Houston Methodist Hospital System. She has extensive global experience, and has coached and developed senior and C-suite healthcare executives; her resume includes spearheading innovative international executive education programs for Cleveland Clinic Health System. Christina’s holistic approach leverages her lean Six Sigma black belt skill set with an academic approach. She believes in building enterprise capability that truly sustains organizational transformation, and requires an executable and measurable plan including both business systems redesign and executive leadership development. A credentialed researcher at multiple institutions, Christina is exploring the concepts of authentic and inspirational leadership. She also presents on operationalizing empathy to improve patient safety and satisfaction as well as employee engagement and innovation. Christina has a PhD from Case Western Reserve University in management, a master of science in strategic leadership from New England College, a master of education in instructional design technology from American Intercontinental University, and a bachelor of science in organizational management from Daniel Webster College
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