Introduction to succession planning

If there is one area that many leaders struggle with, it is succession planning. Of course, you are unique, and no one thinks or acts like you but that doesn’t mean that you can't develop others to be even better than you in the long term. Start early and create systems where you identify talent and then nurture it to deliver your legacy.  

 Ensuring your business is ready for the inevitable changes that arise in business is essential to its growth and longevity. Part of readying your business for change is knowing who’ll lead your company into the next generation. You need a succession plan. 

Your plan should identify, mentor and develop high-potential employees for career-growth opportunities. While top leadership roles should be a key focus of your succession strategy, the plan should include all levels of your organisation because you never know who will move on and when.

Succession planning is not just for the C-level jobs. Of course you want to focus there, the stakes are high. But, what if that a position at the top is filled with an internal candidate. Who fills that person’s former position?

To avoid issues with succession planning, identify candidates for key positions at every level of the organization. It makes your strategy more robust and, ultimately, stronger.

Notice who gets involved, puts their hand up, offers solutions, and takes on project assignments outside their scope of responsibility. An employee with a keen interest in going the extra mile gives you a head start in finding the perfect future leader.

"Leaders stand on the shoulders of the giants they create"

Lucy Barkas

Obstacle 1. The fear of transparency. If you want your potential successors to start thinking about the bigger issues, you need to involve them and share your thinking with them. Think of yourself as a Yoda to their Luke Skywalker, and give yourself freely for the purpose of making them better. Invite them to board meetings. Involve them in big projects. Give feedback and praise and always stretch and challenge them. You get back what you put in.

Obstacle 2. The next fear is, "what if I develop them and they leave?"  If you spend time developing just one person and then they decide to take all of that knowledge or skills elsewhere, you might fear they will take all of your best thinking. Well the standard answer to this question is, "what if you don't and they stay?" I hear many leaders complain that their colleagues just don't have "it". They don't have the knowledge, accountability, passion or ability to step up. Humans are incredible creatures. Given the right environment, they learn, adapt and develop. In the wrong environment, they stagnate and become stuck. You want the right people and to create the right environment for growth.

The other answer to this question is to develop everyone, not just one person. If you choose only one person for succession, you have put all of your eggs in one basket. Spread your development to maximise your chances of finding the right successor at the right time.

Obstacle 3. I don't have time. Growing and developing future leaders is your responsibility and it takes time. You didn't develop overnight. You learned, you watched, you tried new things, you read, you failed and you succeeded. You must create opportunities for development, be a coach, guide and champion. You may have a learning and development department, outsource or be the responsible person. However, you must be conscious in your development.

Obstacle 4. I don't know what I want. If you are looking for a clone of you, you won't find it. You developed in a different time, with different experiences and challenges. However, what you can be clear about is what roles and skills you need to develop for the future. Are you developing and moulding your successors so that when you do make your exit, they are able to take the business to the next level, carrying on the business vision and ensuring stability and sustainability? Are you looking a year from now or 5? What skills don't you have and you want the next generation of leaders to have? If you have done your job properly, your successors will be even better than you because you have shared your failures with them, so they won’t make the same mistakes. 


Identify the roles that are critical to business sustainability.  

Identify the skills, attitudes and competencies required to do those roles effectively.

What is required immediately and what will be needed in the future? 


Look for the talent internally and find the people with the will to progress.  

Talk to the talent and tell them that you have spotted their potential and see if they are up for the challenge.

Share you vision with them and see if they share the same vision.

Ask them what their future looks like, not the bog standard career script, but the kind of organisation they would develop. Does it align with your vision of the future - your legacy?


Create a development plan to fill the skills, knowledge and experience gaps.

Give them accountability and ownership, but be the person to open the doors and give them opportunities.  

Be a mentor, guide and coach and give them access to you and your team so they can learn through experience 

A case study

Whilst working at RWE, succession planning was embedded in a robust process. Every 3 years, leaders and departmental heads were asked to identify talent via an online portal. HR and the senior team would assess the names, skills and potential roles that would be a good fit and then move to engage with the talent. It was a joy to go back to the member of staff and share with them that they had been identified as a rising star. They seemed to grow in front of me. The talent was then asked to complete an online questionnaire that asked them some pretty soul-searching questions.  

 Would they be willing to move abroad?  
What were their key drivers?  
What were their passions?  
What would they be unwilling to compromise on?  
What development did they feel they needed and how would they go and get it? 

 What the company was looking for was alignment with the company’s wants and needs, and those of the individual. Where alignment was found, a strategic decision was made to give the talent the experience and opportunity to develop. Some made the grades, and some moved on. The three-year cycle meant there was always new talent and new opportunities to help build a leadership legacy. 

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