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Challenging old assumptions of succession planning



Succession management is a core business process and integral to sustaining business performance over the longer-term.

Far more than just an HR process, it ensures that there is adequate talent to run the business effectively in the future, replacing key contributors while maintaining business results.

However, many organisations still base their succession approaches on outdated assumptions, such as the idea that succession is solely a continuity process focused on small pools of talent.

Below, we challenge these old assumptions and outline the principles underpinning effective, future-fit succession management.

Succeeding with succession:

How to strengthen succession planning

Idea in practice: The key to success(ion) planning

HR’s role in strategic succession planning

Old assumption: succession planning should focus on the most familiar candidates and approaches.

Historically, succession has adopted a ‘more of the same’ approach focused on extending the successes of the present into the future. However, approaches and capabilities that have driven previous business performance may not necessarily deliver future success, especially in a context of fast-paced external change.

Organisations should instead adopt a ‘future back’ approach, where they first identify the future priorities of the business and then work backwards to identify the talent actions required to achieve these.

This includes defining the critical roles that will be required (remembering that these will not necessarily be the most senior roles) and identifying where and when they will be needed.


Old assumption: sharing organisational approaches to succession management should be discouraged

Organisations have traditionally hesitated to adopt a transparent approach to succession management, driven by fears of exposing flaws in their processes or that a candidate may leave if they become aware that they are included on a succession plan.

However, a transparent approach to succession processes and criteria helps to ensure consistency and promotes integrity, as well as helping to avoid a scenario where individuals fill in any blanks with their own narratives.

While our research shows that all organisations should aspire to transparency of processes, the optimal level of transparency regarding succession outcomes will vary between organisations.

However, it should always be a conscious decision aligned to the business’s overall culture.


Old assumption: successors should prepare for future roles through set career pathways

To prepare a successor for the future requirements of a role, organisations should consider flexible ways that they can develop the required skills, rather than setting them on a rigid career path.

For example, successors may conduct short-term work assignments or projects on the side of their role, developing the experiences they require without necessarily permanently changing role.

For this approach to succeed, organisations may need to additionally create more flexible boundaries around existing jobs.


Old assumption: succession management should focus on small pools of talent earmarked for support

No longer just the preserve of small talent pools, succession management is becoming increasingly employee-centric and democratised, with individuals granted agency to make decisions about their own career pathways.

This approach helps future talent to be available when needed, though will only succeed if the organisational culture supports talent development and avoids the complacent view that the most talented individuals will naturally rise to the top of the organisation.

Done well, succession management can increase employee satisfaction, reduce employee turnover and lead to longer manager tenure.

However, many organisations still base their succession planning on old, outdated assumptions that ultimately limit its effectiveness. Rather than planning for roles that already exist today, organisations should instead remind themselves that the core purpose of succession management is to deliver on the business strategy.

The ever-changing external business environment means that there has never been a more critical time for organisations to recognise succession management as the strategic, participative and future-focused business process that it is.

Jo Nayler is senior research executive at Corporate Research Forum

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