Succession Planning: Maintaining Talent Continuity

Succession Planning: Maintaining Talent Continuity

The immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic by many organizations correctly focused on workplace safety, maintaining business continuity and preserving relationships with key clients and suppliers.

Now, organizations are rebuilding and preparing themselves for the new normal. And, they are taking a good look at their people, processes and systems, including creating or revisiting organizational succession plans.

Establishing a well thought out succession plan is now more important than ever and will continue to be a vital process as baby boomers move into retirement and skills gaps and shortages that were challenges before COVID-19 persist. In this article, we explore best practices for designing and executing a successful succession planning program to help your organization better prepare for workforce disruptions.


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What is Succession Planning?

For some organizations, succession planning simply means making sure there are replacement candidates for key positions. For organizations with a more comprehensive view, succession planning is a systematic process to ensure leadership continuity in key positions, retain and develop institutional knowledge within key employees for the future, encourage individual advancement and ensure the stability or “bench strength” of key personnel.

Having employees identified as backups makes good business sense, as it allows organizations to fill vital roles with qualified successors quickly. A successful succession planning program should align talent management with an organization’s culture, vision and strategies.

Key Benefits of Succession Planning

  • Identify skill gaps and training needs
  • Retain institutional knowledge in a knowledge economy
  • Replace unique or highly specialized competencies

Building Your Succession Planning Team

The role of HR in succession planning should be to support business leaders, facilitate the process and provide tools and guidance along the way. Engaging stakeholders, particularly senior leadership, is critical. As part of the process, you should conduct interviews with them, invite them to take surveys and attend focus groups to get a better understanding of which roles are considered most essential to operations and the future talent needs of your organization

Plan for Both People and Positions

The first step of succession planning begins with identifying which positions your organization should target based on urgency and how critical the roles are to your organization’s operations. Your succession plan should address both specific positions and individuals to ensure you are covering all of your bases.

When identifying individual employees as potential successors for a role, consider the following traits:

  • Flexible and willing to change roles and work environments
  • Interested in professional development and learning new skills
  • A good communicator who works well with other teams and departments

When identifying positions to include in your succession plan, considering the following:

  • Positions central to strategic goals or that can provide you with a competitive advantage during uncertain times
  • Positions that are specific to your organization or industry
  • Positions of influence and leadership within your organization
  • Jobs with long learning curves, training requirements, specialized licenses and certifications
  • Positions that require institutional knowledge and experience

Assessing Successor Candidates

Once critical positions have been identified, it is time for your succession planning team to identify the employees who can potentially fit into those roles when opportunities emerge. But what should your team look for in a potential successor? To answer this question, examine a candidate’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). The three terms seem interchangeable. However, they are distinctly different dimensions of a potential successor’s qualifications.

Knowledge: Focuses on the candidate’s understanding of key theoretical concepts important in the role.

Skills: Skills are the capabilities or hands-on experience needed for the application of theoretical knowledge important for the role.

Abilities: Abilities are the innate traits or talents that a person brings to the role if selected as a successor.

KSAs are the core competencies used when assessing talent and can create a better picture of a potential candidate’s strengths and weaknesses and are useful in paving an organization’s development programs and eventually, a successors’ growth in their new role. 

It is essential for you and your organization to develop a KSA profile of each candidate and see if their attributes align well with a specific role.  

Your succession planning team can start building KSA profiles by asking these three questions: 

  • Where does the organization see the role evolving in the next three to five years? 
  • What unique or specialized competencies are needed to succeed in the role?
  • What qualities should the new successor possesses in order to thrive in the role and meet your organization’s business objectives? 

A successor does not need to be someone who will think, talk and react the same way as the incumbent, you just need to be confident that the candidate can step up to the plate when called upon.

Develop Future Leaders Today

While every job is important, leadership positions within your organization would significantly impact your business if left open for a long period. In fact, according to SHRM’s Selecting Leadership Talent for the 21st-Century Workplace report, the cost of replacing a senior executive can range from $750,000 to $2.5 million, and up to $52 million for a chief executive officer. Leaders will undoubtedly be a significant competitive advantage as your organization rebounds and recovers. This means retaining, developing and leveraging future talent is even more important than it was pre-pandemic.

Your succession planning team, which should include HR and other key members of your executive leadership team, should conduct a thorough review of the skill sets of each member of your leadership team and identify candidates with similar skills who could become potential successors. Your team should also determine skills that you might be missing on your current leadership team and will be needed to emerge successfully from the pandemic and beyond.

PeopleScout Solution Spotlight

Design and delivery of leadership and development centers for a law enforcement agency.

  • Our client’s promotion criteria were historically focused on operational knowledge; we lead a shift in focus to also consider leadership capabilities and behavior.
  • We designed a behavioral framework aligned with national law enforcement standards and local leadership aspirations and organizational values.
  • We led the creation of both operational and behavioral exercises for each rank in the law enforcement agency.
  • We trained talent assessors and developed a digital assessment platform with automated feedback reports to create a more centralized process for succession planning.

Leverage Succession Planning to Retain Institutional Knowledge

According to research conducted by Panopto, 42% of the skills and expertise required to capably perform in a given position will be known only by the person currently in that position. Institutional knowledge is a combination of experiences, processes, data, expertise, cultural values and information possessed by specific employees or teams within your organization. It can span decades and is comprised of your organization’s tangible and intangible knowledge that defines who you are and how you operate. While some of this knowledge gets translated into processes and policies, most of it resides in the heads and hands of individual employees.

For example, what happens if your organization’s top sales manager is decides to take an early retirement or accepts a new position at another organization? Do you have a ready replacement? If yes, do they possess the deep institutional knowledge of your organization needed to rally their team and engage clients effectively?

With succession planning, you can ensure that knowledge sharing can occur concurrently between an employee and their potential successor, giving the successor the unique opportunity to gain useful skills and knowledge without a long, on-the-job learning curve. In the following graphic, we outline best practices for training and developing successor talent.

Training and Development of Successor Candidates

Training and development for potential successor candidates can take many forms and should include both real-life scenarios and classroom-style training. Below are a few common exercises to help ease the candidates into their future roles. 

  • Stretch Assignments: Just like the name implies, the employees will have to complete a set of tasks or assignments that stretch their limits. Examples include leading a special project, being assigned to a challenging task, or chairing a committee. 
  • Job Rotations: Enable successor candidates to rotate and assume different roles to obtain new experiences and learn more about the operations and processes of your organization. 
  • Mentoring and Coaching: Create or leverage existing corporate mentorship programs and pair successor candidates with senior employees to provide candidates with ongoing guidance, deeper insights and career support. 

Communication is Key

Clear and concise communication makes the succession planning strategy much smoother. According to research conducted by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, around 25% of employees in line to take over a key role in an organization did not know they had been chosen for the role. Consider what this might mean — an employee might believe they have no real future at your company and so might make plans elsewhere.

Be sure to inform each employee you have identified as a potential successor — especially in the case of leadership roles — that they have been ear­marked for a future role (without making an outright promise). Take this opportunity to determine if they are interested. While they might be content with their current position, knowing that you see real promise in them might make them feel valued, resulting in better employee retention.


A well-implemented succession plan will give your organization a sense of the investment you will need to make should backups for key positions be necessary. Whether it’s temporary or long-term, employees who are asked to assume greater responsibilities need support. Regularly checking in with employees will make you keenly aware of what they will need to be successful.

Remember, succession planning is not a one-off task. Organizations need to be agile to keep up with the fast-paced and ever-evolving world. You should regularly discuss and reevaluate your strategy with key stakeholders including front-line managers, your executive leadership team and HR leaders to make sure your plan is up to date.