Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

The Strategy of Succession Planning

by M. Dana Baldwin
Senior Consultant, Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

Dana Baldwin

When Business Week magazine features an article questioning why Herb Kelleher, CEO of the very successful Southwest Airlines, has not designated and groomed a successor, it exposes a weakness in many companies’ strategic thinking. The concept of succession planning has become an important part of many companies’ strategic planning but not in all companies.

Too many think of succession planning as having application only in family owned companies or in large conglomerates. In fact, succession planning should be a part of every company’s Strategic Plan - your vision of where the company will be going in the future. The reasons for this approach are fairly obvious: If there is no succession planning process, how will the company develop and nurture its human capital? How will you assure a continuing sequence of qualified people to move up and take over when the current generation of managers and key people retire or move on? How will you be able to plan for the future of the company without some assurance that the key posts will be filled with people able to carry on and excel? Succession planning is much more important than the time many companies devote to it would indicate.

Succession Planning Process

Succession planning is a part of the process of preparing for the future of your company. Does this mean you should only plan a succession path for your CEO? We suggest that virtually every key position and key person in your organization is a candidate for a succession plan. The important impact is that it is virtually impossible to successfully promote someone unless there is a trained person to take over the position being vacated. To effectively implement a succession plan, you need to include/consider a number of elements:

  1. What is the long-term direction of your company? Do you have an effective strategic plan guiding your course and direction?
  2. What are the key areas which require continuity and development of the people resources within your company?
  3. Who are the key people you want to develop and nurture for the future?
  4. How does the concept of succession planning fit into your strategies? Are you concentrating your efforts in the areas where the returns will be highest?
  5. What are the career paths that your most talented people should be following? Is each path customized to fit the abilities and talents of the people involved? The point here is to be sure you do not do this by rote: a plan that is not dynamic, that does not include the consideration of the individual’s involved, is not usually as effective as one that is tailored to each individuals needs and capabilities.
  6. Should you wait for openings to appear before promoting someone, or should you make opportunities for each individual as they grow and mature, so that you can keep them challenged and stimulated, and not lose them to other, possibly faster moving companies? Your plan should be proactive, with people moving into different areas for experience and training before they are needed in critical positions, rather than reactive - waiting for openings to occur, then scurrying around to find an appropriate candidate at the last second.

Strategy for Succession Planning

First, realize that one size doesn’t fit all. There are different approaches which may be used, depending on the situation in each company. In some cases, a company may have to move some people along quickly, in order to expose them to a broad range of experiences, and possibly to fill vacancies. In others, a deeper involvement in selected departments or disciplines may be indicated. Some of this will depend on the culture and processes of the company. In yet other cases, decisions about the process will depend on the individual’s capabilities and competencies, and the structure and operations of the company. In virtually all situations, your ability to educate and promote will depend on the capabilities and strengths of the people who currently occupy the key positions, and where they will be going in the future - what are they being groomed for?

It may not be vital to have a succession plan for every position in the company, but certainly there are some key areas of responsibility which must be considered. These will vary by company and industry, but as a part of your Simplified Strategic Planning process, one important strategic issue should be the need for succession planning for certain, defined key positions. This issue should be revisited at least once a year, and more often if circumstances dictate.

Advantages of Succession Planning

  • An ongoing supply of well trained, broadly experienced, well-motivated people who are ready and able to step into key positions as needed.
  • A cadre of desirable candidates who are being integrated into the company with positive goals established for them individually.
  • A flow of these capable people through various departments with the goals of educating them into the culture and processes of the company.
  • Availability of appropriate resources within the company to conform with the future needs of the company.
  • Positive goals for key personnel, which will help keep them with the company and will help assure the continuing supply of capable successors for each of the important positions included in the succession plan.
  • Defined career paths, which will help the company recruit and retain better people.
  • Very likely, the continuous input of ideas to improve the internal processes and procedures of the company, as well as the opportunities to improve the offerings and services of the company in the marketplace.

Recognize that all companies do not have to follow the same path either in the overall situation or even for each individual. Each situation should be analyzed and optimized in terms of the company’s needs and the individual’s needs. In addition, there should be enough time allowed to groom the successors. They should not be expected to learn the jobs/responsibilities overnight. Time is the gift that good planning can bestow on the process. Also, the successor and potential back-ups should be designated early in the process. Not only will this help the individuals involved, it will clarify the communication and help eliminate disappointment and possible departures of key candidates if they become disillusioned because they have not been informed they are being groomed for higher positions or if they feel they are not moving upward rapidly enough.

Succession Planning Pitfalls

Some important ones include:

  1. Lack of a formal written plan for each key person or position.
  2. A rigid, inflexible plan NOT tailored to the needs and abilities of the personnel involved.
  3. Too long a wait for real movement/promotion, potentially resulting in the best people leaving due to apparent inertia in the system.
  4. Too superficial an approach, with the corresponding lack of real understanding of the procedures, processes and requirements of each area the individual is exposed to during the process.
  5. Selection of unqualified or unmotivated people for inclusion in the succession plan. Quality of the individuals selected is paramount to the success of the process.

Succession Planning Benefits

With a well-thought-out succession planning process, your company earns a number of clear pluses:

  1. A well-trained, involved and potentially deep stream of capable people who are well versed in the breadth and depth of the company.
  2. A continuous stream of people who are constantly reviewing, questioning and refining procedures and processes, helping to improve the quality inside the company, as well as improving the offerings of the company out in the market place.
  3. An increasing reputation as a good, challenging, stimulating place to work, which could result in your ability to hire ever better people.

How should privately held corporations handle ownership considerations versus management and operating considerations? Situations in which ownership and operations or management responsibilities are vested in the same people can be devastating to a family or closely held corporation if not handled wisely. While difficult, the duties of management and the family/stockholder relationships must be kept separate for the good of both the stockholders and the corporation. Private relationships which interfere with the effective operation of the company can only be harmful and non-productive. Nepotism can be either positive or negative, depending on the capabilities of the individuals involved. It is rarely neutral.

Business considerations should take precedence over family considerations when it comes to the welfare of the company. Private, family matters should never interfere in or be a part of the business. Failure to adhere to this advice can often lead to unfortunate or even calamitous situations which can tear a closely held company apart. These may be difficult situations, and may require an impartial source to mediate. In any case, clear, objective, unambiguous guidelines and goals should be set in writing so that the junior members of the family firm may have specific expectations of where they might go, how they are expected to progress, and the standards by which they will be judged. Family considerations must be kept outside of the on-the-job evaluations, or the entire process can become quite unsettling and less than objective for the individuals involved. Where possible, outsiders (to the family) might be involved in the mentoring and development processes to help the development of the younger generations. This can bring a degree of objectivity that parents and children can often find difficult to maintain in situations where the younger generation works for and will eventually succeed the senior people. Settling this issue is potentially the key to the effectiveness and even survival of some privately held firms.

Succession Planning in Simplified Strategic Planning

As in the deployment and utilization of any strategic resource, the development of your key people must be considered as you plan for the future of your company. It is certainly worth considerable time and effort to discuss the company’s needs and current capabilities thoroughly, as a Strategic Issue, and possibly as a part of Strategies - Internal Development. If you do not have a formal procedure for succession planning, you may want to create an Objective which mandates the development and installation of a Succession Planning process which fits the needs and preferences of your specific company. What do you need to do to get the best from your people, to position and educate them so they may best contribute to the company’s and their long term success, and to assure a flow of competent, well educated and experienced people for your future?

How long should succession planning take? Realistically, succession planning is never finished. On a regular basis, each company must look at its needs and resources to determine where it needs to have successors in place or in the process of learning the requisite disciplines. Each company needs to determine how long a candidate should be involved or exposed to the training needed. Each individual should have a concisely determined path toward the goal set for him or her. That path may be changed as needed and as events determine, so monitoring and updating should be a part of every succession plan.

Over what time period should you plan? To be realistic, succession must be planned years in advance of expected needs. To properly train a successor, the firm needs sufficient time to expose the people to the full spectrum of opportunities within the firm, as well as any desired or required outside education/experience expected. For example, if someone is expected to be a general manager, the number of departments, the types and ranges of technologies and processes, and the level of knowledge about the company procedures and policies, markets and customers, suppliers, employees, contractors, etc., will determine the time and depth of involvement. Additional factors, such as past experience and current knowledge that the individual brings to the process, will also affect the succession time frame.

Skillfully done, succession planning will bring the peace of mind that senior management should have, based on the understanding and expectations of its future leadership.

Outline for Succession Planning

I have developed an Outline for Succession Planning which you will find to be a very useful process. Please submit the following form to receive your complimentary copy.

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