leadership development

A Guide to Building the Best Succession Plans (+ Examples)

Dive into a detailed succession plan example & learn how to cultivate future leaders. Get tips & tools for smooth transitions & sustained growth.

Matthew Reeves

CEO of Together

Published on 

February 6, 2024

Updated on 

Time to Read

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Picture this: your CEO announces their retirement. The board scrambles to find a suitable replacement. Morale dips. Uncertainty hangs heavy in the air. Sound familiar? 

It's an all-too-common scenario of unplanned leadership transitions, a recipe for disruption and lost momentum. In fact, 49% of companies worldwide lack a formal succession plan, leaving them vulnerable to talent gaps and costly instability.

But it doesn't have to be this way. 

Succession planning isn't a luxury, it's a strategic lifeline. It's identifying and nurturing your future leaders, not before the storm, but while the sun shines. It's ensuring a smooth handover of the baton, preserving institutional knowledge, and guaranteeing your organization's continued growth—even when the inevitable winds of change blow.

Ready to break free from the reactive dance of unplanned transitions? Let's explore the power of succession planning and uncover the tools to build a future-proof leadership pipeline

Understanding what succession planning is

Ever heard of a company built like a house of cards? One key departure, and the whole thing crumbles. That's the scenario succession planning aims to prevent.

Simply put, succession planning is building the bridge between your present leadership and a vibrant future. It's identifying and nurturing talent – your high-potential stars – to seamlessly step into critical roles when the time comes. Think of it as inoculating your organization against talent shock.

Why is this so crucial? Consider this:

  • Deloitte reports 86% of leaders believe succession planning is an "urgent" and "important" priority, yet only 13% believe they do it well.
  • Firing a CEO, without a succession plan in place, costs companies an average of $1.8 billion in shareholder value, whether the new CEO is from inside or outside the company.
  • McKinsey research reveals that unsuccessful leadership transitions lead to 20% lower employee engagement and 15% lower team performance.

Think of a well-executed succession plan as your secret weapon:

  • It fosters organizational stability and smooth transitions, safeguarding against knowledge gaps and disruption.
  • It attracts and retains top talent, who see clear pathways for growth and development within the company.
  • It cultivates a culture of learning and continuous improvement, empowering your future leaders to excel.
  • It boosts employee engagement and morale, knowing the organization invests in their long-term potential.

In a nutshell, succession planning isn't just about filling empty chairs; it's about building a thriving legacy. It's the insurance that your organization not only survives, but thrives, even as the leadership baton passes to the next generation.

Ready to learn how to craft your own winning succession plan? Buckle up, the next section explores the essential ingredients for success!

🛤️ Also read our Guide on The 4 Stages of Succession Planning

9 Key elements of an effective succession plan

A common misconception around succession planning is that it's simply a wish list – a hopeful glance toward the future with little substance or strategy. But in reality, it's far more than that. It's a meticulously crafted roadmap that guides an organization through the inevitable twists and turns in its leadership journey.

So, where do you begin in crafting this vital roadmap? 

The answer lies in breaking down the essential components that make it truly effective. Imagine these components as individual building blocks, each carefully chosen and strategically placed to form a sturdy and reliable path toward a thriving future. 

Let's delve into these critical elements, dissecting their roles and exploring the tools and strategies you can employ to ensure your succession plan isn't just a pipe dream, but a tangible bridge to a prosperous tomorrow.

1. Identification of key roles

In a successful succession plan, identifying key roles is crucial. This isn't about randomly selecting positions to fill; it's about discerning the very engines that drive your organizational ship, the positions that hold the greatest influence and impact. It requires critical thinking and strategic foresight, looking beyond the immediate present and anticipating future needs and growth areas. 

For instance, if you're a tech company, your lead software developer or project manager may be key roles. Identify these roles early on to ensure a smooth transition when changes occur.

2. Talent assessment

Once you have identified the key roles, the next step is talent assessment, the delicate yet crucial task of discovering the hidden gems within your talent pool. 

Think beyond resumes and experience – look for hidden gems with the right blend of skill, potential, and leadership qualities. Think diverse perspectives and fresh ideas that can fuel innovation and growth.

3. Communication strategy

Next, we build the superstructure of communication and development. Transparency is key – keep your crew informed about the plan and their potential role within it. Hold regular meetings, create informative materials, and foster an open dialogue to build trust and engagement, while celebrating milestones along the way to motivate and inspire. 

4. Leadership development

Imagine a seasoned leader stepping down, leaving behind a vacuum that cripples your organization. Leadership development equips potential successors with the skills, confidence, and experience to step into those shoes with minimal disruption.  

So, how can you invest in leadership development? The options are varied and adaptable:

  • Tailored training programs - Design programs that cater to individual strengths, weaknesses, and leadership styles.
  • Stretch assignments - Challenge individuals with projects outside their comfort zone to push their boundaries and unlock hidden potential.
  • Conferences and workshops - Provide access to external knowledge and networking opportunities to broaden perspectives and learn from industry experts.
  • Leadership rotations - Give individuals exposure to different departments and functions to develop a holistic understanding of the organization.

5. Mentorship programs

Mentorship programs are a vital ingredient in any robust succession plan. They bridge the gap between experienced leaders and emerging stars, weaving threads of knowledge, wisdom, and practical experience to prepare the next generation for success.

The power of mentorship isn't just anecdotal. It's more than just learning the ropes; it's a knowledge-sharing ecosystem where seasoned veterans impart their hard-won insights, helping rising stars navigate the complexities of leadership, build confidence, and refine their skills.

eBook Colleague Connect: A Program for Stronger Employee Ties

6. Emergency succession plan

No matter how meticulous your planning is, the future can hold surprises. Sudden leadership departures or unforeseen circumstances can disrupt even the most stable organizations. That's why every robust succession plan needs a safety net: a comprehensive Emergency Succession Plan ready to be activated at a moment's notice.

Think of it like a fire drill for your organization. Just as you regularly practice for an emergency evacuation, the Emergency Succession Plan outlines the immediate steps and responsible individuals in case of critical leadership disruptions. This ensures a swift and decisive response, minimizing chaos and keeping the organization on track even amidst turbulence.

Regularly review and update your emergency plan to reflect personnel changes, organizational shifts, and evolving risks. Conduct simulations to identify potential gaps and refine your response mechanisms. 

7. Succession planning committee

A comprehensive succession plan isn't just about identifying future leaders and offering training; it requires careful execution and oversight. That's where the Succession Planning Committee steps in, acting as the driving force behind the plan's implementation and success.

Here's how this committee fuels your succession plan's success:

  • Gathering diverse perspectives - The committee isn't a one-man show; it's a melting pot of knowledge and experience. Including representatives from HR, senior leadership, and even key stakeholders ensures you're not missing any crucial angles. 
  • Avoiding bias and blind spots - We're all human, which means we have our own biases and blind spots. A well-structured committee helps mitigate these risks, ensuring a fair and objective approach to talent selection and development.
  • Building trust and transparency - The committee acts as a bridge between leadership, HR, and the wider organization, fostering transparency throughout the process. This helps build trust among employees, who feel their voices are heard and that the selection process is fair and well-considered.

8. Integration with performance management 

Think of performance management and succession planning as two sides of the same coin. By integrating them, you create a powerful engine for talent development, ensuring a smooth transition of leadership and building a future-proof organization that thrives on its people's potential.

Here’s how you can do this:

  • Align development with goals - Use performance reviews to identify strengths and weaknesses of potential successors, aligning their development plans with the specific skills and knowledge needed for future leadership roles. This way, you're not just giving them generic training; you're providing targeted development that directly contributes to your succession plan's success.
  • Go beyond annual check-ins - Foster a culture of ongoing feedback and development where managers and mentors regularly provide constructive criticism and guidance. This continuous feedback loop helps individuals stay on track, identify areas for improvement, and build the confidence needed to step into leadership roles.
  • Track progress and make adjustments - Use performance management data to track the development of potential successors, assess the effectiveness of your training programs, and identify any gaps that need to be addressed. This ongoing monitoring allows you to adjust your plan as needed, ensuring it remains relevant and effective in the ever-changing business landscape.

9. Regular review and update

Just like your organization adapts and grows over time, your succession plan needs to be a living document, constantly evolving to stay relevant. Regular review and updates are crucial to ensure you have the right leaders ready to step in whenever needed.

Here's how you can embrace continuous improvement in your succession planning:

  • Regular reviews - Schedule frequent reviews, ideally annually or even bi-annually, to assess your plan’s effectiveness and identify areas for improvement.
  • Data-driven decisions - Gather feedback from employees, stakeholders, and leadership teams to understand their perspectives and concerns. Use performance data and industry trends to inform your decisions about changes and updates.
  • Talent pool refreshment - Regularly assess your pool of potential successors and identify new individuals who possess the skills and qualities needed for future leadership roles. Don't rely on the same shortlist year after year.

Remember, a dynamic and adaptable succession plan is an investment in your organization's long-term success. By prioritizing continuous improvement, you ensure you have a pipeline of talented individuals ready to lead when the time comes, navigated by a plan that reflects your evolving needs and keeps you ahead of the curve. 

Succession plan example 

Now that we've explored the key components and principles of effective succession planning, let's put theory into practice. We'll walk you through a succession plan example for a fictional company, highlighting how these elements come together in real-world situations. 

Remember, this is just a jumping-off point, adapt and customize it to fit the specific needs and structure of your organization. 

1. Succession plan overview

Purpose: 

  • Ensure continuity of leadership and knowledge transfer in key roles to maintain business growth and sustainability.

Benefits:

  • Protect the organization from disruptions caused by unexpected departures.
  • Develops a pipeline of talented leaders for future growth.
  • Motivates employees by providing career development opportunities.

2. Key Positions

  • CEO (responsible for overall strategy and vision)
  • Head of Operations (looks after production and supply chain)
  • Head of Sales and Marketing (drives customer acquisition and revenue growth)
  • Chief Technology Officer (leads innovation and technology development)

3. Talent Assessment

GreenGrow Gardens employs a three-pronged approach to assess the potential for each key position:

Performance reviews

GreenGrow's performance reviews delve deeper, assessing qualities like communication, problem-solving, and collaboration. Employees at all levels, including peers, direct reports, and even clients, provide anonymous feedback on potential successors. This multi-dimensional, 360-degree feedback helps uncover hidden strengths and weaknesses often missed in traditional reviews.

Leadership potential assessments

Beyond resumes - GreenGrow utilizes validated leadership assessments to measure cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, and adaptability.

Customized profiles - GreenGrow uses customized profiles to tailor development programs and mentorship opportunities to maximize each potential leader's growth potential.

Example in action 

Assessing Jessica Davis for Head of Sales and Marketing

Performance review - Jessica consistently surpassed sales targets while fostering a positive and collaborative team environment. Her innovative marketing campaigns have gained national recognition, showcasing her strategic thinking and creativity.

360-degree feedback - Jessica received high praise for her communication skills, ability to motivate others, and willingness to mentor junior team members. Clients commended her customer focus and understanding of their needs.

Leadership potential assessment - Jessica's assessment revealed strong analytical skills, strategic thinking, and a high score in adaptability. However, it also highlighted a potential tendency to micromanage.

Based on this multifaceted assessment, GreenGrow identifies Jessica as a strong candidate for Head of Sales and Marketing. Her development plan will focus on empowering her team, delegating tasks effectively, and further honing her strategic leadership skills.

4. Leadership development

GreenGrow offers a range of tailored development programs to ensure that its future leaders have the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to thrive in their roles. Some examples include:

  • Mentorship pairings with senior leaders
  • Executive coaching
  • Leadership training courses
  • Stretch assignments to test readiness for higher-level roles

Example in action

Development plan for Jessica

  • Executive coaching to enhance strategic thinking and decision-making.
  • Leadership training program focused on effective team management and conflict resolution.
  • Participation in industry conferences and networking events.
  • Lead a cross-functional project to launch a new product line, demonstrating the ability to drive innovation and collaboration.

5. Communication strategy

GreenGrow Gardens believes that transparency and trust are essential for a successful succession plan. Here's how they communicate openly with employees and stakeholders:

1. Unveiling the roadmap

  • Town hall meetings - Mr. Thompson, the CEO, holds regular town hall meetings where he openly discusses the succession plan, its purpose, and the benefits for both employees and the company.
  • Internal newsletter - A dedicated section in the company newsletter features updates on the progress of the plan, highlighting individuals like Jessica Davis and their development journey.

2. Tailoring the message

  • Management training - Senior managers are trained on effectively communicating the plan to their teams, addressing potential concerns and anxieties with clarity and empathy.
  • Stakeholder briefings - Mr. Thompson personally meets with key stakeholders, including investors and board members, to explain the plan's details and rationale, addressing their specific interests and concerns. 

3. Fostering engagement

  • Interactive Q&A sessions - Following announcements, GreenGrow offers dedicated Q&A sessions where employees and stakeholders can raise questions and receive clear answers. 
  • Internal social media platform - A dedicated forum on the company's internal social media platform allows employees to discuss the plan, share feedback, and offer suggestions.

4. Celebrating milestones

  • Internal recognition - As individuals like Jessica Davis progress through their development programs and achieve milestones, GreenGrow celebrates their successes through company-wide announcements and internal awards.
  • Success stories - The company newsletter and internal communications channels regularly feature success stories of individuals who have benefited from the succession plan, showcasing how it empowers employees to grow and reach their full potential. 

6. Succession timeline

GreenGrow Gardens understands that a clear and realistic timeline is key to a successful succession plan. Here's how they define their roadmap for Jessica Davis' potential transition to Head of Sales and Marketing:

Year 1: Building the Foundation

Year 2: Refining and Preparing

This timeline is a dynamic roadmap, subject to adjustments based on Jessica's development, business needs, and unexpected circumstances. 

7. Contingency planning

GreenGrow Gardens recognizes that surprises can strike. To ensure seamless operations even in the face of unexpected departures or disruptions, they have a robust contingency plan in place. This plan includes:

  • Temporary assignments - Key responsibilities can be temporarily redistributed among senior team members while a more permanent solution is found.
  • External recruitment - If internal talent isn't readily available, GreenGrow explores external recruitment options to fill essential roles quickly.
  • Internal promotions - When possible, qualified internal candidates are considered for promotions, offering career advancement opportunities and minimizing disruption.

8. Monitoring and evaluation

GreenGrow Gardens understands that continuous monitoring and evaluation are crucial for a future-proof succession plan. Here’s how the company keeps a watchful eye on its succession plan.

  • Progress checks - Development programs and talent readiness are regularly assessed, ensuring individuals stay on track and the plan remains relevant.
  • Adaptive approach - The plan isn't set in stone. Adjustments are made based on progress, feedback, and evolving business needs.

9. Documentation and knowledge transfer

GreenGrow Gardens knows that effective knowledge transfer is a continuous process, not a one-time event. The company cultivates a culture of learning, collaboration, and wisdom sharing by following these diverse strategies:

  • Detailed job profiles - Beyond responsibilities, each key position has a comprehensive profile outlining crucial skills, decision-making frameworks, and industry best practices.
  • Process playbooks - Every critical operational and marketing process is meticulously documented, step-by-step, with flowcharts and visuals for clarity.
  • Wisdom vault - GreenGrow Gardens has established a centralized repository of essential documents, historical reports, and even video recordings of seasoned leaders sharing their insights. This "wisdom vault" is accessible to all, fostering a culture of learning and preserving valuable knowledge for future generations.
  • Shadowing - High-potential individuals like Jessica Davis shadow mentors like Mr. Thompson, observing their daily routines, decision-making processes, and client interactions. This firsthand experience provides invaluable insights and builds confidence for future leadership roles.
  • Cross-pollination through teams - Cross-training programs break down departmental barriers, allowing individuals to gain firsthand experience from colleagues in other functions. 
  • Mentorship circles - Experienced leaders like Mr. Thompson act as mentors, guiding and supporting potential successors through personalized advice, problem-solving sessions, and regular feedback.
  • Internal knowledge portal - GreenGrow has developed a user-friendly online platform where employees can access documented knowledge, share best practices, and learn from each other. 

This is a hypothetical succession plan example, and a real succession plan would include more specific details and timelines for each element.

HR's role in succession planning

Succession planning isn't just about filling chairs when leaders move on; it's about strategically cultivating future talent and ensuring seamless transitions for ongoing success. In this crucial endeavor, HR emerges as the architect, playing a multi-faceted role in designing and implementing robust succession plans.

HR wears many hats in this process:

  • Talent scout - They identify high-potential individuals across the organization, assessing skills, leadership qualities, and potential through performance reviews, assessments, and even 360-degree feedback.
  • Development facilitator - HR collaborates with leadership teams to tailor development programs for potential successors, including mentorship pairings, executive coaching, and leadership training courses.
  • Process architect - They work with leaders to define key roles, document responsibilities, and establish clear talent pipelines for various positions, ensuring a smooth flow of talent as needs evolve.
  • Communication champion - HR ensures open communication throughout the process, informing employees and stakeholders about the purpose, benefits, and timeline of the succession plan, fostering trust and engagement.
  • Change navigator - When unexpected challenges arise, HR helps navigate disruptions and adapt the plan accordingly, ensuring continuity and minimizing uncertainty.

For a truly successful succession plan, collaboration between HR and leadership teams is paramount. Here's how they can work together:

  • Leadership buy-in - HR educates leaders on the importance of succession planning, securing their commitment and active participation. This ensures the plan receives the resources and support it needs to thrive.
  • Strategic alignment - HR collaborates with leadership to define the organization's future direction and identify the skills and qualities needed for future leaders. This alignment ensures the plan develops leaders who are equipped to navigate the company's future challenges and opportunities.
  • Leadership development - HR partners with leaders in designing and delivering leadership development programs. Leaders can share their own experiences and insights, while HR provides expertise in training methodologies and program evaluation.
  • Mentorship matching - HR facilitates the matching of potential successors with experienced mentors within the organization, leveraging the wisdom and guidance of current leaders to nurture the next generation.

By proactively embracing their role and fostering strong collaboration, HR can ensure that succession planning is not just a box-ticking exercise, but a strategic investment in the future of the organization. By nurturing a pipeline of well-prepared leaders, HR empowers companies to navigate change, overcome challenges, and secure their ongoing success.

Securing your organization’s future with Together

While the daily grind of operations might keep succession planning on the back burner, its importance cannot be overstated. It's not just about filling empty chairs, it's about cultivating future-proof leaders who drive sustainable growth and navigate the ever-evolving business landscape.

Consider the tangible benefits: smoother transitions, minimized disruption, talent retention, and even a competitive edge when attracting top talent. The example we explored, GreenGrow Gardens, showcased how a well-designed plan fosters employee engagement, nurtures future leaders, and ultimately secures the company's continued growth.

But building an effective plan takes more than good intentions. It requires dedicated resources, expertise, and efficient tools to manage and optimize the process. This is where Together, a powerful mentoring platform, enters the picture.

Together streamlines every step of your succession planning journey:

  • Talent identification - Utilize data-driven insights and assessments to identify and track high-potential individuals across your organization.
  • Development roadmap - Design personalized development plans, match mentors with successors, and track progress through intuitive dashboards.
  • Knowledge transfer - Facilitate seamless knowledge sharing through structured mentorship programs and collaborative tools.
  • Communication and visibility - Keep everyone informed with built-in communication features and transparent progress reports.

Embrace the future, invest in your talent, and unlock the full potential of your organization. Take the first step by exploring Together: a platform designed to empower your HR team, engage your employees, and cultivate the future leaders who will take your organization to new heights.

Book a demo today and learn how Together can transform your succession planning into a powerful engine for sustained growth and a vibrant future.

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