Leadership Succession Planning at Its Best

In any organization, senior leadership fails if there is no succession plan. Whether a large international conglomerate or a simple mom and pop venture, passing the torch is vital to long term staying power.

12295180 - passing the baton
Courtesy 123rf.com

Part of succession planning is not merely naming those next in line, but it involves grooming and nurturing for handing off control. There is a spirit that goes with the best intended succession plan. “The Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole does a good job of capturing that spirit.

An old man going a lone highway,
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim, near,
“You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head:
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been nothing to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”

If you are in a leadership role, have you identified the next in line? Has the process begun to tutor, groom, and develop the people in succession?

Here are five key things to include in the process for developing the next generation of leadership.

1. Get the right people on the bus – Jim Collins, in his work “[easyazon_link keywords=”Good to Great” locale=”US” nw=”y” tag=”thredoth-20″]Good to Great[/easyazon_link]”, defined this concept. The right people have to be recruited and on-board before a succession selection can happen. This is the foundation; finding people who have the right heart and soul for what your mission is about.

Perhaps you may need to thin the crop. Maybe your current staff is not fully committed to doing the right things for your company. You must get all of the right people aligned so that moving in the same direction is less of a problem. Making the tough calls now about the team on hand will help smooth the transition for the successor.

2. Identify core competencies – Before any personalities are introduced to the selection process, lock down on the vital characteristics needed for succession. Write a definition of skill sets and attributes that are deemed most important for the position to hold. This is not so much a job descriptor as it is a framework for success.

Make this a collaborative process. Get input from various sources both in and out of the company.

3. Create a shortlist – Make a list of possible candidates that fit the criteria from step 2. Vet this list with multiple sources too. While past performance with the company or within the industry is highly valued, the other attributes should be carefully weighed. Past performance should never be the only selection criterion.

4. Begin the grooming – Candidates selected for succession roles should be subjected to a more formalized development plan. Are there areas of the company they don’t know yet? Get them exposed to those. Are there special considerations (contractual or otherwise) that must be understood?

Not all candidates will meet 100% of the core competencies. What can you do now to strengthen the parts that are lacking?

5. Establish the timing – Succession plans sometimes fail because the named successor is forced to wait too long. In the Bible, David was told he’d be King, but had to wait 14 years. Who in today’s market would accept a deal like that? The timing of revealing succession must be carefully orchestrated so that the outgoing leader is truly ready to go while the incoming successor is ready.

Often larger companies will mitigate this challenge by establishing a high-potential pool of talent. These are mid-level management and technicians who meet the core competencies, but for whom there is no specific role above. As vacancies open, these “hi-pots” are tapped for promotion. The hi-pot programs serve to groom while building an inventory of possible succession candidates.


I said there is a spirit for maximum effectiveness of succession. All too often I hear of an “us versus them” mentality when it comes to succession. That kind of thinking is void of the spirit. The spirit needs to be just like that of the bridge builder in the poem; having a heart that says I came this way and fought the chasm. Now I want to bridge the gap for the younger person who will come behind me.

[shareable cite=”Doug Thorpe”]I’ve never understood the senior manager that looks behind him with disdain.[/shareable] All of his hard work to build something can go away in a flash if the next generation is not given the chance, when the timing is right, to move forward.

[reminder]How do you see succession planning where you work?[/reminder]