How to Develop a High-Impact Succession Plan

Wednesday March 23rd, 2016 at 9:01am
Written by Jennifer Giannosa - Senior Consultant

In its basic form, succession planning is a way to identify and develop professionals entering a leadership position. Transition is undoubtedly something every organization experiences - the ebb and flow of people entering and exiting various roles. Some organizations have mastered a process of continuous succession planning. Yet, many small and medium size businesses remain unprepared for sudden or imminent changes that require immediate action.

EDSI has identified a succession planning process to successfully address changes like retirement and loss of key people. The process focuses on the collection and analysis of specific data, allowing for highly customized solutions. One major focus of this process is certainly communication. Communication builds trust and subsequently reinforces a message to employees that their skills and experience are valued.

Let’s take a closer look at the steps involved in developing a succession plan below.

The starting point for any succession plan begins with two important questions:

  1. What is the main goal or goals you hope to accomplish?
  2. What does success look like for your organization?

The point of this step is to develop SMART goals; specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound goals. Overall, it is important to take the time to plan before doing. It is also crucial to identify your audience. Understand the development needs of those who may be transitioning roles and take time to consider the needs of your organization. Communicate with people who can help and gather as much information as possible.

In this step, we will collect data which will serve as the foundation of the entire succession plan. Information is instrumental in making the right choices and providing a solid foundation to so people can feel confident about the plan. The more people excited by your cause, the more support and advocates you will have to ensure the success of the project, now and in the future.

Consider what daily, weekly and monthly tasks for which the specific employee is responsible to complete. Which tasks are the most critical? What are the primary skills required? Compile the information into a ‘skills balance sheet.’ A skills balance sheet is like a financial balance sheet, yet instead of tracking money, we track the skills of employees. This information will serve as the basis on which to evaluate potential candidates and develop a training plan.

Pro tip: After completing the skills balance sheet draft, pause to consider additional job tasks or skills that may not have been captured. These may stem from advances in technology, underperformance or benchmark information from competing organizations.

Below is a real world example of a small portion of a Skills Balance Sheet for a Chief Operating Officer.

Step 3, ASSESS, provides data on each incumbent’s rated ability to perform the job tasks identified in step 2, DOCUMENT. To create the assessment, we add a simple rating scale to the skills balance sheet, like the example below.

Next, ask employees to self-assess their ability to perform the tasks listed on the skills balance sheet. Rating each skill provides specific and valuable information. This data can be used in candidate evaluation discussions and should focus on each candidate’s skill levels and gaps. Example discussion questions include:

  • What would a training plan look like?
  • What kind of support can the organization provide to improve identified gaps?
  • Are the most critical gaps easily trainable?

Pro Tip: When selecting a candidate, consider an individual with high potential with room for growth. A candidate with an overall low-skill level is not a good fit, yet one with an overly high-skill level may be over qualified.

At this point in the process, roles are transitioned and people are on-boarded into new positions. Communication is pivotal throughout the entire process, especially when the official announcement takes place. Utilize your data to gain support, understanding and validation.

  • Include a ‘plan of action’ for the new employee with a focus on skills to be acquired
  • Provide a list of available resources
  • Acknowledge the achievements and legacy of the departing leader

Developing the knowledge, skills and abilities of your talent is perhaps the most critical step in the succession planning process, and this step is truly ongoing. Your employee should feel consistently supported. Setting recurring meetings is a great way to offer this continued support and encouragement. A mentoring phase, with specific time dedicated to training and coaching the new incumbent, is highly recommended.

Consider the following:

  • Identify a support team
  • Establish initial performance goals
  • Address challenges identified in an organizational audit
  • Establish a mentor and mentorship timeframe

Remember, communication is critically important throughout the entire succession planning process. Effective communication within the organization fosters understanding and provides opportunity for partnerships and support from all stakeholders.

If you are looking for support in developing a high-impact succession plan within your organization, please contact me at

Founded in 1979, EDSI is a national leader in workforce development, customized training and consulting.

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