For some employees, the mention of “succession planning” at their company can bring about a wide range of emotions – and for good reason. In many places, succession planning only comes up in one of three scenarios:

- Someone is retiring

- Someone is quitting

- Someone is getting fired

Unfortunately, these feelings typically indicate a deeper problem that is rooted in a reactive, secretive planning process. But this really doesn’t have to be the case. Succession planning is healthy for all companies and needs to be built into their talent practice so that employees are aware of and actively engaged in the process. So how can a company make this happen? Here are a few tips to move any company in the right direction.

Create a culture of transparency

Simply put, succession planning involves planning for the future of your employees and the future of your business in the short, medium, and long term. However, creating an environment where these conversations are supported may involve a necessary culture shift. Reagan Carnegie, Vice President, Culture and Leadership, at Finastra, explains, “Companies that keep a talent calendar and follow a regular cadence build trust with their employees by ensuring performance and talent conversations are regularly happening.” This allows leadership and managers to adopt an “always on” approach to succession planning where they are regularly identifying and engaging high-potential employees who may be ready to move into senior roles now or in the future.

Identify the right people

Once companies have decided on the depth of their succession plans, it is equally important to create a shared understanding of which employees should be approached. This starts with making distinctions in a few key areas. For starters, between employees as individuals and the roles they occupy. An employee who represents a single point of failure, such as a web developer who is the only one trained on a specific type of coding or a payroll administrator who is the only one familiar with a specific platform, is not going to be represented in succession plans. These individuals represent a business risk that should be addressed through a different process. A critical role, on the other hand, is a job that is crucial to delivering something directly tied to strategy, such as advancing key relationships or launching a new product model, and should not be confused with an individual who holds critical knowledge that could be spread across multiple employees. Critical roles should be represented in succession plans.

At the same time, companies also need to understand the difference between high-potential employees and high-performing employees. High-potential employees are individuals who not only excel in their current role but also have a clear path to a more senior position. High-performing employees, while valuable to any business, do not necessarily have a clear path to advancement. While motivating these two types of employees is important for retention, the high-performing employees are ultimately the ones who should be engaged in discussions about how they fit into the future of the company.

Start having honest conversations

Once the right people have been identified, it’s time to engage them in honest conversations about their future to determine whether the company should invest in their development. Carnegie understands these conversations to be important in holding managers accountable for regular engagement of their staff to create a shared understanding of what’s next for them. “You can’t make assumptions about anyone, and you need to make sure you’re both on the same page before discussing what development may look like for them. Some employees might be immediately ready for growth, while others might need a few years to develop, which could include mentorship, coaching or exposure to a different role.” This development might occur above and beyond their current role, so a commitment of time and energy from both sides is necessary before this investment is made. You may also find that some high-potential employees might not be ready for or interested in this type of growth, and these conversations avoid potential misunderstandings that could come to light down the road.

Revisit plans regularly

A strong succession plan is only valuable if it is properly integrated into ongoing practice and available from the human resources department to be reviewed and actioned. Some public companies might be more inclined to update their plans, especially if it is a regular agenda item with their board of directors, while others might find their plans slowly grow out of date. It’s important for companies to hold themselves accountable to revisit and update succession plans on a regular basis. This includes making updates as employees leave and others join, as well as conducting routine in-depth reviews to ensure all stakeholders are aligned. Lastly, most companies aren’t going to be able to identify all of their successors in-house, and creating a well-researched list of externally available individuals can help fill any potential gaps. These steps create succession plans based in reality: you know who is on your roster for which roles and at what time, and when new staff must be engaged based on your business needs.

Before any company considers developing or revising succession plans, it is critical to make sure that employees are always part of these conversations. Whether it’s communicating growth opportunities for certain individuals or clarifying unrealistic expectations for others, you will never regret having the conversation. No one likes being the dark about their future, and a succession plan based on honest and consistent communication removes that uncertainty for both employers and employees.

Are you aware of any succession plans in place for your department?

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