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Planning to Fail? Best Practices in Succession Planning

Delaney Tosh

"When boards permit a happenstance approach to succession planning, they have effectively abdicated one their most crucial responsibilities." 

Stephen A. Miles & Nathan Bennett 
Nov 2009,

The same can be said of business owners. As a business, having a succession plan doesn't necessarily mean having an exit plan. Succession planning actually answers these three questions:

  • What is the lifespan of this business?
  • Who will keep the business running?
  • How will the departure (or sudden absence) of key members/roles be managed?

Threat to the economy

It is in everyone's best interest -- the owner's, shareholder's, employees', customers', suppliers' and the family members of the owners -- for there to be a clear strategy for succession. It is in the best interest of the company's longevity.  It comes down to this:  if you don't have a plan, how can anyone have confidence in the longevity of your company?

Mike Thompson, CMC, Associate Professor, Management Consulting with the Faculty of Management at Royal Roads University at a recent Surge High Voltage Business Breakfast said, "I suspect that the key issues of succession planning and transition are not being addressed by many companies in B.C.  I think that this critical demographic threat is going to have a profound impact very soon."  Thompson raises a good point: that failure to plan isn't just a threat to the business, it is a threat to the economy should a lack of succession planning be as widespread as he suspects.  Thompson is embarking upon an applied research into the issue of succession planning readiness within the small and medium size enterprise sector in the province of B.C.

I suspect that overwhelm and a lack of seeking support for the development process is what keeps most companies from preparing a succession plan.  There may also be another compounding factor:  a lack of an overall business strategy.  Succession planning should be aligned with the overall business strategy taking into account the vision, goals and objectives. Ultimately it is difficult for a company to fulfill its goals without an effective succession plan.  It is equally difficult to create a succession plan without a clearly developed strategic plan. 

A savvy approach

Research shows that succession savvy companies use several best practices in their approach to succession planning and management.


  1. Their succession systems are easy to use and ensure consistent, objective processes.
  2. They proactively focus on attracting, developing and retaining talent, rather than replacing it.
  3. They have identified the gaps, as well as the key roles that are critical to the continued success of the company.
  4. They continually refine and redefine, if necessary, their systems based on new information, feedback, changes in the business environment and learning from other business leaders.  They align their people strategy with their business strategy.
  5. The succession planning is an open system.  Everyone is apprised and is able to give feedback.

A 'Plug & Play' candidate does not exist

Start your succession planning now by taking the time to answer these questions:

Analyze the situation:

  • What are the most significant challenges the company and its industry are likely to experience in the coming years?
  • What skills and experiences will key roles within the company need to effectively lead the company or department through those challenges?

Senior baton relay hand-off 225-225x149
Owners/directors may make the mistake of thinking a future leader should be a replica of current leadership.  Consider that future challenges may require different skills/experience.  Succession planning is a forward looking process, not an attempt to replicate the past.


Determine a process for development:

Consider that a 'plug & play' candidate does not exist.

Now, repeat the sentence above to yourself again, and again, until it has been fully digested.

If they do exist, they are likely far out of your reach and ability to hire. It is unrealistic to think someone can just jump in and run things successfully. Development is a must. 

  • Will you develop internal or external candidates?
  • What do they need to know?
  • How will you enable engagement and empower decision making?
  • How will you ensure they understand the vision and culture and are committed to sustaining the culture?
  • What are the relationships they need to develop?

Determine a process for transition:

  • What will the on-boarding process look like?
  • How will relationships be developed?
  • What will be the plan for the first year? How will you engage the candidate in creating this plan?
  • What will be their milestones and the metrics on which their performance is measured?
  • What will ensure everyone is working from the same plan?
  • What coaching will be in place to support successful on-boarding over the first year?

Managers are not leaders

While a company may think they have their succession planning under control, it is equally important to develop the leaders.  Solid and successful succession planning is not a static plan.  It is an integral part of a company's culture.  Nurturing good leadership is an ongoing and active process.

Kevin Groves, in his research paper, Integrating leadership development and succession planning best practices concludes that the "analysis of interview data indicated that best practice organizations effectively integrate leadership development and succession planning systems by fully utilizing managerial personnel in developing the organization's mentor network...". In other words, succession savvy companies are those which actively establish a supportive organizational culture.

While a lot of the literature focuses on leadership development in success planning, I believe it is a mistake to think succession planning is just about the leadership.  It involves the whole organization.  The planning really should encompass all the roles or future roles needed to fulfill the operations of the company.


A senior consultant with Delta Partners, Delaney Tosh, CPCC, is a Certified Professional Coach working with teams and CEO’s on leadership, organizational management, innovation and succession planning challenges.  She is co-founder of The Surge Strategies Group Inc. and facilitates the Business Innovator Labs™.  Full profile on LinkedIn.


This is a great blog Delaney; congratulations!

By Alcide DeGagn on 2010/09/03


Two points really stand out for me…succession planning is a forward looking process, not an attempt to replicate the past and that nurturing good leadership is an ongoing and active process.

Concerning the first point, we know from our change management work that “what is” is a comfortable state and change creates resistance which is normal and expected.  Recognizing this and accommodating this in transition and strategic planning is crucial to the success of the plan.

On the second point, nurturing good leadership as an active and ongoing process is also critical.  Assuming that candidates are selected for leadership competencies, ongoing development of these skills in accordance with the strategic needs of the organization and the individual career expectations requires clear intent.  Any process that allows individuals to self-assign toward future positions greatly assists in planning and is a key retention strategy.  The private sector has more flexibility in this area since they can simply hire talent whenever they see it and begin a development process based on emerging needs.

While you may not wish to replicate the past, my experience is that people do want to celebrate and honor people and events that contributed to where they are in the present.  In my change management projects, I typically like to include a history wall with time lines and artifacts to focus on what made the organization great in the past.  It is a wonderful sharing experience and a “line in the sand” for the going forward discussions. 

As a final point, many managers are good and effective leaders but are often constrained by the hierarchies and/or regulatory environments in which they do their work.

By Diane Thompson on 2010/09/03

I agree completely with the best practices you have identified as I’ve seen them in many well run organizations. Over the past 30 years I have had the opportunity to help middle and senior managers take stock of the risks they faced if some of their specialists were to leave suddenly. It came as a shock to many who came to realize they had no game plan in place to deal with the potential loss of some of their subject matter experts(SME’s) and how their entire business could fail due to their lack of foresight and action. Those leaders quickly took stock and took action. Now, some 20 odd years later, many organizations are in a new crisis as their ‘boomer experts’ are poised to leave. Our clients are paying close attention to succession planning and knowledge transfer, but what we are finding is that many of these people are unaware of what to pass along to their successors and how to make it available. They lack some structure to do the job. They are asking us to help them answer these questions. Should we meet face to face to pass along our expertise? Do I put it all on our intranet? What’s of value to my successor anyway? How can I capture the tacit knowledge that helps us be successful? Regretfully, some leaders are still sticking their heads in the sand based on the premise that ‘we can always call on employees after they leave’ or ‘we will bring them back as consultants’. I fear that only when an organization has engaged in a deep and thorough risk assessment will the true pain of inaction drive them to plan -that’s unfortunate as a more proactive approach to career development, talent management and planned continuity is of benefit to everyone - from the CEO to the new employee in the shipping department.

By Heather Hughes on 2010/09/03

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Posted by Delaney Tosh
Posted on September 2, 2010

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Categories: hr & talent management, knowledge transfer, planning & policy, strategy