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ATD Blog

Succession Planning: Insights From Experts

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sir Isaac Newton attributed his accomplishments to the benefits of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” This same concept leads me to frequently study the insights and discoveries of others for continued improvement to my current practices.

The following is my latest collection of thoughts about succession planning and how they have influenced my thinking.

Succession Planning Starts With a Ripple, Not a Wave

An excellent quote from Anne M. Mulcahy, former chief executive officer and chairwoman of Xerox , is, “One of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it’s almost a nonevent when it happens.”

This quote made me consider how we often try to create a big splash with the roll-out of our succession planning efforts. That’s nice for recognition and notice by the business world, but it may actually be an intimidating and negative environment for employees.

If we’re doing it right, shouldn’t our succession planning quietly and organically emerge from our ongoing development of employees?

You’ve Already Started

Another concept that holds back many organizations from engaging in any sort of succession planning is the idea that everything must be in place to roll out the plan. That’s basically like waiting for all the traffic lights to turn green before starting the drive from Florida to California.

For a good outlook on this, we can draw on the words of George Patton, who said, “A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented tomorrow.”

If we consider that mentoring and coaching are essential elements of succession planning, we discover that we started our succession efforts a long time ago. Add the fact that, every time we consider a promotion or reorganization of positions, we are looking at the capabilities of our employees and relating them to the future needs of our workplace. Doesn’t that sound like succession planning?


Wouldn’t it take a lot of the pressure off ourselves if we realized that we’re already conducting succession planning efforts? We just haven’t applied the name yet.

What’s in a Name?

In an article entitled, “ 4 Tips for Efficient Succession Planning(Harvard Business Review), Marshall Goldsmith and Jim Moore brought up an interesting point when they considered changing the name of succession planning to succession development. As they noted, “Plans do not develop anyone. Only development experiences develop people.”

Perhaps a simple changing of terminology like this could help if our organizations are encountering resistance to succession planning efforts?

Look for Hidden Treasure

We notice some high potentials because they are extroverted and frequently in the spotlight. However, for every apparent rock star, quiet employees are equally effective but out of our range of vision.

A blog post on (“Beginner’s Guide to Succession Planning”) noted: “Often, employees who are the most extroverted are the ones who get considered for promotion. But sometimes your strongest performers aren’t the most visible.”


This quote reminded me that taking the time to notice people other than our star employees may just give us insights into individuals who could be a big part of the organization’s future. Additionally, their willingness to work without as much recognition may even mean they are fueled by the internal motivators that represent strong, long-term employees.

Wouldn’t a person who is motivated by internal needs such as the desire to overcome a challenge or to improve the team’s performance be the kind of person we want to develop?

Every Role Is Key

In the article “ 10 Tips for an Effective Succession Planning Strategy,” Stuart Hearn makes a valid point when he says, “Acknowledge that there are no such things as ‘key roles.’ Every employee is important.”

In my earlier days of succession planning, I remember how every organization wanted to focus on key roles such as C-suite and other high-level positions. We’ve learned in recent times that there is no true way to determine every role that will play a key part in the future of our organizations.

Before the pandemic of 2020, did we realize that tech-centered innovative thinkers in our organizations would become some of the most important factors to our success? We knew that technology was important, but we didn’t realize that overnight it would become the dominant form of communication in the workplace and beyond. Or did we realize that our frontline workers and their ingenuity in making the impossible happen would be the sole reason our businesses survived?

Recognizing this, isn’t it appropriate to realize that we need to look at all positions as important and plan to develop the skills in every role, even the ones that may never lead to the CEO seat?

Summing It Up

Succession planning is important but perhaps most important is for us to be adaptable, to be willing to continue learning, and to incorporate new ideas as we move to create the futures of the workplaces we love. If we keep this in mind, we’ll not only be able to continue building on the shoulders of giants but also realize that we are not developing for today’s workplace. We’re creating plans for workplaces we wouldn’t even recognize.
And there’s the lesson that keeps me flexible and in the role of the continual learner.

About the Author

When you use a workbook by Christee Atwood, you gain the benefit of her impressive experience as a speaker, trainer, and knowledge management adviser. A certified Franklin Covey trainer who has worked withFortune 500 companies, major associations, and governmental entities, Atwood provides the knowledge and tools you need to deliver top-notch workshops in your own organization. She does all this with an easy-to-read conversational style and plenty of humor. In fact, Atwood teaches "But UnSeriously Folks!"—a course on the effective use of humor in the workplace—and has written a humorous autobiography, Three Feet Under: Journal of a Midlife Crisis.Atwood has also written three ASTD Press books:Knowledge Management Basics, Succession Planning Basics, and Presentation Skills Training.

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In this quickly changing environment, the exodus from our organizations for increasingly flexible options makes our work even more challenging. Therefore, building relationships across our leaders and tapping into our key performers at every level is crucial.
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I have worked several years in a large MNC. Seen countless 'changes'. Majority of these people role changes were done by the business folks based mostly on soft skills, trust, energy, propensity for success - - NONE of these are measured. It's all gut feel from lengthy periods. Results and ability to get results are also considered based on skills and competencies.
1. Is this an optimum way?
2. Do more elaborate quantative processes trump above methods?
3. Ideal approach?
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