I was recently reminded that I have a birthday coming up soon; the one day every year where you magically age 365 days overnight. This reminder came in the form of an email from my financial advisor updating me on my 401k, life insurance, and the steps I need to take to plan for my future now that I’m going to be officially older than yesterday. He often tells me that my actions now will set me up for success later in life, what I’ll do after retirement in the distant future and planning for the unforeseen obstacles that might come.

Basically, every one of us with insurance, a retirement account, or cash under the mattress are succession planning in our personal lives. If this has become commonplace in our daily routines, it begs the question, “Are we making succession planning commonplace in our offices?”  

Succession planning, in its simplest form, can be just having someone in mind for who might be next in line for your role or one on your team. Will you recruit, fill from within, or possibly eliminate the position?

I have personally experienced both extremes of the succession spectrum. I’ve worked on a team where there was zero succession planning. Every retirement announcement, two-week notice, transfer, or promotion caused a fire drill of epic proportions, with leadership furiously scrambling around trying to figure out what to do next. I have also been on a team where every single position I managed (more than 50) had to be charted out monthly for the next two years, with gaps of more than one month being unacceptable. Each block (representing one month) on the chart had to have a name associated with it, even if that name was “new hire.” If it was a “new hire,” it needed to be on our recruiter’s and HR’s calendars, as well. We updated our grids every month, and always had a contingency plan if someone were to leave unexpectedly. 

I would propose that there is a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, depending on the size and needs of your company. The following factors should play into those plans.


Planned Turnover 

Let’s start with the basics: planned turnover. It’s pretty easy to have a plan in place if you know someone will be leaving. If you know someone is planning to take a promotion or even retire at the end of the year, it’s never too early to start preparing. What skills are you looking for? Can you fill the role internally? If so, who will replace that role? Will your budget or salary needs change? Who will train the new person in their role? Perhaps you need to hire 90 days early to allow the outgoing individual to train the new hire. These are questions that can be answered now.


Unplanned Turnover

Unplanned turnover gets a bit more complicated. Just like in sports, there are players on the bench ready to step up if someone gets injured. Do you have a bench? Does the position require one, or can you survive with the position being open while you look for a replacement? If so, how long is acceptable to you? Can someone else on your team be cross-trained to cover this role if need be?

I recommend having a bench plan for each role that cannot go more than 30 days without someone in position. If something comes up, put the plan into action. If someone needs to be cross-trained, don’t wait until there is no one to train them.


Have a Recruiting Plan 

An important part of succession planning is having a recruiting plan ready to put into action. Keep updated copies of job roles and responsibilities and stay in contact with your recruiter and human resources department regarding your plans.

Keep an eye on what the job market in your area is like. Will you look for the same skill set, or is it possible that you might want something new? Is there a shortage of talent, or is it readily available? Can your current budget support the hiring process? Does your HR or recruiter have a bench of talent ready for you to review on a regular basis?


Think of Your Team

An often-overlooked benefit of succession planning is the impact it can have on your team. Besides eliminating the obvious stress that running short-staffed can cause everyone, succession planning helps retain talent, demonstrates your leadership thought process, and provides transparency into how you think. Your team will see all of these positive things. If your team knows you are thinking about their future, growth, and potential, they are much more likely to stay committed.

There is nothing worse than having no idea what your future potential is. A written succession plan can provide transparency into your thought process, and can also lay out clear goals and action steps that an employee will need to take to achieve those goals.

Remember that transparency and follow-through are key. If your succession plan calls for someone to receive a promotion in 12 months depending on if they achieve specific goals, be certain you can follow through on that promotion. Don’t forget to provide consistent feedback throughout the process on their progress.


Put It into Action 

You can put the “success” in succession by putting a plan in place. Start by answering these simple questions for each role that you manage:

  • What is my plan for expected change?
  • Who is my backup for unexpected change?
  • What is the acceptable amount of time this role can stay unfilled?
  • Who is cross-trained for this role?
  • Who will train the new person and how long will it take?
  • Who have I shared this plan with?

Revisit this plan as often as you see fit. I think quarterly is a good starting point for any size team. Remember that succession planning isn’t only for you; it’s also for the benefit of your team and the continued success of the company as a whole. Like my financial advisor says, If you stay prepared for what might happen, what does happen won’t be a surprise.