Leadership Succession Planning

Leadership Succession Planning

Leadership succession planning is an item on every business owner’s list, and yet it is rarely addressed head-on.

I’m going to give a big shout-out to HBO: Before Succession, we sometimes had to explain precisely what succession planning in business is, but thanks to that dark, sharp, wicked dramedy, more and more people outside the C-suite are now familiar with the ins and outs of strategically deciding who will run a business when its current leaders depart.

When a leadership team member leaves, it can feel like a death in the family. Not to get too morbid, but when you think about it, there are more similarities you than you may care to find. Nobody else can completely replace an executive who’s departed; every individual has talents, skills, experience, and a personality that is unique and creates a unique set of dynamics and bonds. But proper planning can help you (and the rest of your team) be fully prepared and understand how each person’s attributes interact with operations, so transitions don’t become crises.

Leadership succession planning is an action item on every CEO’s/business owner’s list, and yet perhaps because this complex topic is so difficult to face, it is rarely addressed head-on.

The reasons are countless: First, there is the ominous nature of the issue itself. How many of us can easily talk through the steps of leadership succession planning, in all its vast implications? So many other immediate priorities will impact the business today, tomorrow, next week; it’s human nature to put off thinking about changes in leadership team.

Asking the Experts

To help lower barriers to this topic a bit, we have tapped into our treasure trove of executive expertise. CEOs can leverage HR leadership to take the lead on leadership succession planning (yes, I meant to use “lead’ three times in a row when I described HR’s role). 

Ed Suraci, an HR executive for large global companies, says, “Overall, we want HR being proactive. We want them in our business. We want someone who will engage and challenge us from a talent, salary, rewards, and recognition perspective—on a day-to-day basis. If HR is an afterthought, then the company is missing the trend. And companies are struggling to put the structure into place that enables a relationship between HR and business partners for key strategies such as leadership succession planning. HR needs to be in the business of developing relationships and credibility.”  

Thought Leadership

Rob Stultz, interim HR leader, says “The entire organization, from CEO down, must buy into the concept of succession planning, or it won’t work. It is not merely an exercise. The entire C-suite must be committed to ongoing succession planning.”

What does this look like, specifically?

Four domains predict success in organizational thought leadership:

  • Vision: Does a person being considered as a successor for a position look many steps downstream, far into the future, considering repercussions of decisions and potential consequences? Do they weigh strategic options and the future? Do they see themselves or the organization in visionary terms? Are they open to making changes to meet future needs?)
  • Communication skills: Does a potential leadership successor communicate constructively, quickly, regularly, simply, and effectively, both verbally and in writing? Do candidates for succession keep teams above and below informed? Do they seek, facilitate, and build consensus? 
  • People skills: Emotional intelligence is an emerging field of study in industrial/organizational psychology. Those with outstanding “people skills” have developed an exceptional form of intelligence: They instinctively (or intentionally) leverage empathy, internal motivation, self-regulation, and self-awareness to convince others to work toward larger, organizational goals, and in the best case, they inspire the team to do so happily–even joyfully. 
  • Technical knowledge (of the job, the industry, the position, trends, etc.)

 To expand further on Stultz’s four key leadership boxes:


Not every leader is a visionary leader, and not every leader needs to be. But in leadership roles the ability to grasp vision is required, and all leaders do need to be forward-thinking and able to quickly understand and translate the CEO’s vision to others for follow-through and execution throughout the organization. 

Communication Skills

As Stultz mentioned, the level of communication skill necessary for a leader being considered as a C-suite successor goes far beyond the basic verbal and written skills. Poor leader communication is one of the most common challenges we see in organizations of every size, from Mom-and-Pop shops to multinational conglomerates and even in government, nonprofits and NGOs. Being able to filter information coming from the top, pull out the “What’s In It For Me” that makes it relevant to the workforce, and convey it outward in a clear and succinct manner the organization and stakeholders is a key skill to help young leaders develop. 

Technical Knowledge

Succession requires having some foundation in the inner workings of the company. Whether this is industry-specific, company-specific, or trade-specific, some technical understanding can go a long way when stepping into a leadership role. Someone from outside the organization with zero knowledge of what the company does can step into a leadership role within the company in a transition (either because the technical knowledge can be quickly obtained or because other attributes outweigh the narrow nature of the technical skills). However, when conducting leadership planning, a good technical knowledge base should be on the checklist. 

People Skills

Unless the organization is made up of robots, leadership relies heavily on people skills.

I once worked with someone who had a great number of specific, exacting opinions regarding how everyone should do their job and did not hold back from sharing them. During a discussion with her manager, she once suggested she could run the department much better than he. His response: “You are correct. It would be the most organized and effective department. Just one problem: You’d be the only person working in the department, since everyone else would quit.” 

Critically evaluate whether candidates have the ability to bring out the best in people or possibly the worst. Poor people skills rarely improve, even with extensive training and development.

How to Start Planning Succession in Your Organization

Successful leadership succession planning is never accomplished in one sitting and certainly not in a vacuum.

Stultz suggests a yearly approach.

“Come together annually to review high potential individuals and use this as a part of workforce planning. Also consider quarterly sub-meetings.”

Leadership succession planning also doesn’t need to be solely an internal planning event. Leverage outside facilitators to drive the planning and to add clarity, context, and to help identify gaps during these regularly scheduled succession planning reviews across the C-suite. This can also help avoid in-fighting, lack of focus, and create stability that transcends management regime changes.

The right human resources leader can be one of the best business partners to help champion leadership succession planning.

Have a conversation with your HR leader today to get their thoughts. Sometimes, it just takes knowing that planning is supported at the top to get the ball rolling.

And if your internal HR team has too much on its plate or no deep experience in succession planning, reach out and give us a call. We can help with that on a part-time, interim, project, project-to-perm, or full-time hire basis.


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