Succession Development. What Is It?

November 2021

You may be running a business, like the person who requested these tips. Or perhaps a division, group, or team. You may be a sole practitioner, a small business, or part of a multi-national. It doesn’t matter.

You still need to look in the mirror from time to time and ask: ‘what next?’ And not just for you, but for the community of staff, customers and clients, and suppliers you serve. What will happen to them when you aren’t there?

Ready, Set… Start Now
It’s never too soon. Especially if you want to cultivate options and bring the best talent up through several ranks. If you own your business and will want to sell it, there is value optimisation too.

Never Naked
Developing succession mustn’t be separate from your organisation’s core business strategy and its values. Candidates must be ones who meet your values. And their strengths must align with what the organisation needs.

What’s in a Name
Words matter. I’ve always thought that induction sounds less than welcoming (unless you’re two weeks late). Succession planning is another example of the wrong term. A plan is less use than a ready cohort. I prefer ‘succession development’.

Simple Start
A simple start is what I think of as the Warren Buffet emergency letter. Every other year he has every CEO of a Berkshire Hathaway company write him a short letter. All it contains are the names of two executives who could take the place of the CEO at short notice, and the strengths that got them into the letter. It’s a great exercise.

Time and Effort
But developing those people so they are ready is not just a matter of a quiet chat and the occasional lunch. Come to think of it, honing your list of candidates is also a big task. But remember, we’re talking about ‘development’ not just planning.

Take away the Emotion, Politics, and Irrational Judgements
All that leaves is objective evidence. How robust are you in assessing who has potential and what development plan will best bring it out? And, when you have reviewed the evidence with care, you’ll need some honest – and maybe difficult – conversations. It’s best that everyone knows where they stand.

If you are serious about sustainable succession development, you won’t only be thinking of your next tier. Who will replace them? And who them? Succession development needs to extend all the way along your pipeline of talent.

‘Never put your eggs in one basket.’ Some cliches are popular for a good reason. What if you invest time and effort developing your pipeline, then Hina, Chris, and Daryl all leave. Now you have succession gaps all the way up and down your pipeline. Give yourself options. And, what if your choices of people are few, because your team or unit, or business is small? Then think laterally and look for radical options that go beyond like-for-like replacements in role. Plan a new structure, or develop external relationships.

Challenge, Test, Cross Train
An important part of your development programme must be to fully challenge potential candidates. You need to bring out the best in them and find the evidence you need. Cross training will give them the breadth, and you the data to understand where strengths lie. Remain open to new development routes.