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Avoiding the Succession Planning Pitfalls

To avoid potential problems, it’s a good idea to review some of the most common missteps in succession planning. These are the 10 pitfalls that could be deadly to your succession planning efforts: 

Pitfall #1:  Lack of Management Support

If top management doesn’t support the program, it will most probably fail, no matter how well thought out. To avoid this possibility, enlist management from the beginning of this process by not only having their representatives on the team, but also including them in communications. 

This communication can be as simple as a regular email or report outlining progress. This will help managers relay this information to their direct reports in a positive manner and will keep them engaged in the process. As we’ve seen in numerous surveys, one of the most important motivators in the workplace is feeling like you’re part of the team or being in-the-know. By promoting this feeling, you’re creating a positive atmosphere for succession planning. 

Pitfall #2: Lack of Effective and Open Communications to the Entire Organization 

If your succession planning effort is not communicated positively, it will be subject to negativity, fear, and possible sabotage. Communications such as regularly scheduled email, promotional flyers, written and oral reports, or even updates given as department meetings will help with the anxiety that can accompany succession planning efforts. Keeping open communication lines and soliciting input from employees at all levels of the company can be as simple as a suggestion box or an email asking for suggestions from all employees, to as extensive as a series of town hall meetings where employees get to express ideas and concerns. 

This plan is being developed for the entire organization and especially those at entry level because it is a plan for the future and those entry level employees are the future of your company. If you represent it positively, the plan will work to increase retention in entry-level employees because they will be able to grow in the organization. Those opportunities represent another major motivator in the workplace, according to employee satisfaction surveys. 

Pitfall #3: Lack of Communication With Individual Leadership Candidates 

Organizations have been surprised to find themselves starting all over again when a top candidate has left the organization for another opportunity because the candidate didn’t know he or she was in line for leadership positions. 

It’s also important to talk to leadership candidates to verify that they’re interested in leadership roles. We can’t assume that everyone in the organization wants to move up. Some employees have seen the heavy responsibilities their managers have to deal with and are content to stay where they are. Communication with potential leaders should include regular reviews to ensure they are still interested in moving to the next level and to monitor their developmental activities. 

Pitfall #4: Lack of Understanding 

Many times the members of an organization perceive succession planning as creating a ceiling over them, not allowing them to move upward unless they are one of the chosen few. A focus on the plan at the individual level can help this understanding. Add a segment to performance appraisals where managers discuss career paths in the organization and discuss employee interests and strengths in relationship to the career maps of the organization. This reinforces succession planning as a development opportunity for the individual instead of a ceiling. 

Pitfall #5: Inadequate Documentation 

A formal written plan for the position or the person is essential to this process. Consistency and thoroughness of documentation are necessary to ensure that the result of assessments and development efforts are considered in all decisions. Prominently displaying charts and posters with the assessment figures and discoveries during project meetings is a basic way for visually oriented team members to keep this information in mind during decision-making periods. Brief summaries at the beginning of meetings that recap the results of assessments also help keep the focus for the group. 

Pitfall #6:  Inadequate Participation 


Succession planning is not just a job for the human resources department. Involvement from all levels of the organization helps ensure buy-in and reduce the possibility of negativity. Although maintaining succession planning usually falls on the HR specialists, it must include a diverse segment of the organization for buy-in to occur. If membership is restricted to the current management or any one segment of the organization, it will turn into an us vs. them situation that is the death blow of any reorganization effort. 

Additionally, using only the incumbent’s perception to create a position description limits the role to what has existed in the past. The list of competencies needed for that position can be updated by using input from levels who interact with that position as well as those who understand the new strategic directions of the organization. 

Pitfall #7: Lack of Accountability and Follow Through 

Project planning methods with follow-up meetings, action items, assignments, deadlines, and accountability are necessary to ensure the success of the program. It can be helpful to take a complete project management approach with this program. That could include project management software or simply the charting of key action items, tasks, and deadlines. 

You might also find it useful to bring in an external facilitator or consultant to ensure that deadlines are met and politics or other initiatives of the organization do not interfere with the progress of the team. Often long-range thinking and strategic planning are pushed to the back burner in consideration of “firefighting.” This leads to reactive management and draws the attention away from strategic planning. Occasional case studies of organizations that have failed because of a lack of long-range planning might serve as motivators to your group. Even case studies from within the organization itself can remind them why they have dedicated this extra time and effort. 

Pitfall #8: Lack of Reviews and Revisions 

If you treat a succession plan as though it were written in stone, it will become more of a hindrance to your organization than a tool. Make adjustments as situations change. Leadership should regularly review business dynamics and employee developments to determine if modifications are needed. 

During the course of succession planning, there will be positions that come open and fall into the replacement hiring that is common in workplaces today. Take the time to point out the cost of that hiring process as opposed to the investment that is being put into your succession plan. The cost of employee hiring today includes everything from HR overhead, classified ads, personality testing, background checks, handled more effectively with a little advance planning, the return-on-investment is going to be considerable. 

Pitfall #9: Focusing on Only the Top Level of Leadership

Although the CEO and senior leaders in the organization should always be considered in a succession plan, there are other critical positions to address. Key positions include those with specific knowledge and capabilities that are vital to your organization’s success and are not easily replaced. 

Pitfall #10: Assuming That Success in One’s Position Will Guarantee Success in a Higher Position 

The competencies required for success at each level are different. A person who is an excellent accountant may not have the competencies or people skills needed to be a supervisor of other accountants. Each position must be considered separately and by its own criteria to determine whether the job is a match for that person’s abilities. Also, the fact that someone has been at a company for a long time should never overshadow the competencies needed in the position. Using the promotion as a reward instead of following the succession plan undermines the system.


Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from  Succession Planning Basics  (ASTD Press, 2007). This book will equip you with the background and implementation tools to devise and execute a forward-thinking succession planning program. It will guide you through creating a workforce profile and conducting analysis, building individual job profiles, and implementing an employee development strategy.



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 with Fortune 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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