When Should Companies Start Succession Planning?

March 16, 2018 by Josh Hrala

Succession planning involves making sure that all roles at your organization are properly filled with the right talent and that there are no gaps in your workforce when someone steps down via retirement or any other type of offboarding.


This means that to successfully succession plan an organization has to thoroughly examine their workforce, underline what key roles cannot go unfilled, and work towards having staff members at the ready for whenever senior leadership or other high-skilled workers exit the organization.

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But when should you start succession planning?

Let’s find out.

When Should Companies Start Succession Planning?

Managers and HR leaders need to start succession planning as early as possible. In fact, a proper succession plan starts when a person is hired.

When looking for talent for your organization, it’s important to look at what your business’ goals are and what skills match those goals, bringing you closer to achieving them. Once that level of workforce planning is done, it’s time to examine your senior leadership to look for what key roles are in danger of being vacant in the future.

While this seems like a waste of time when you have no potential leadership gaps on the horizon, it’s vital for the success of your company in the long run.

“As time-consuming as it can be to pull the executive team together in person to focus on talent management, it is probably the most impactful people-focused meeting HR will have each year—or better yet, multiple times a year,” reports Susan White from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

This means that every organization – regardless of size – should start succession planning as early as possible because grooming leaders for high-level roles isn’t something that can be achieved overnight. It can take a long, long time before they are ready to make the switch with a more senior staff member.

So, when it comes to succession planning, start with onboarding. Find the right talent for the right job and keep in mind that this person may very well one day take over for a senior leader in your company.

How to Start Succession Planning

Since every organization is different and requires different roles to run properly, it’s impossible to give a surefire way to train leaders for specific roles. However, there are some overarching pieces of advice that have been passed down by high-powered leaders over the years.

The first step should be to bring on your senior leadership team as well as all other stakeholders to examine your current workforce. This will help you narrow down who needs a succession plan behind them and how to start looking for the next person to take over their role.

The most important part of this step is bringing together HR leaders and upper management who must agree on what core concepts are at play.

“The leadership team needs to agree with HR on the competency areas most critical to its success. Direct managers also should be invited to the talent discussion process and bring the performance and potential succession ratings for their staffs,” reports White.

“In the actual succession meetings, when each staff member is discussed, the direct manager will often benefit from valuable insight offered by colleagues that may influence the ratings.”

Once these ideas are nailed down, the team can start to evaluate.

Evaluate Candidates With Internal Leadership and External, Unbiased Consultants

It’s important to remember that some of the people in these meetings may also want to take over the role, which can really impact who they determine to be the best fit. This is why it’s important to look within using your own leadership but also important to get an outside opinion to make sure you are not blinded by bias or causing a weird power vacuum.

“Once your criteria are established, you should get a baseline assessment of your internal candidates. I recommend that the board look wide and deep,” writes Stephen A. Miles for Forbes.

“The entire top team should go through the executive assessment process first–ideally by an outside firm–so that you don’t single out favorites and start a destructive horse race.”

Once this process is done, you can start either training the candidate, giving them a stress test to see if they are really eligible for the role or start the onboarding process. This level of succession planning is typically later in the game when a high-level leader is about to step down.

The Importance of Starting Early

Like we said above, it’s vital for you to start succession planning as early as possible because it gives you – and the person who will likely step into the leadership role – time to develop what core competencies are needed for the role to operate successfully.

This is true even for smaller businesses. Just because your organization doesn’t have 100,000 people working there, doesn’t mean that leadership roles are any less important. In fact, it can sometimes be even harder to find leaders for these roles because they are so specialized.

By starting early, you also reduce the amount of work you and your stakeholders will have to take on later in the game. If you start as soon as a person is hired, you are also forced to do workforce planning, too, which is a way to make sure that your talent aligns with your goals.

Basically, succession planning and workforce planning go hand-in-hand, except that succession planning largely focuses on senior leadership, but it doesn’t have to. Any talented member of your team is an asset to your company and their skills should be retained whenever they move on to a new role, exit because of retirement or whatever the reason.

Want to learn more about workforce planning? Check out this free guide to get started:

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Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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