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Is it time to create your own succession plan?

5 min read


If you’re in a senior leadership role in a large organization, there’s a good chance there is a succession plan for your position in case you get promoted, win the lottery, get hit by a bus, leave for another company or need to be replaced for poor performance.

In smart companies, an orderly replacement of high-level, critical positions is considered to be strategically important to the continued success of the company. A failure to proactively plan for succession is the same as failing to safeguard the financial assets of an organization.

Other than this handful of critical executive positions, succession planning for the rest of the organizations is usually managed by identifying “pools” of candidates that are considered to have potential to move into any number of senior leadership roles. In other words, the typical mid-senior-level leadership position isn’t considered important enough to worry about if the incumbent leaves. When it happens, the organization reaches into the pool for a replacement, hires externally, or re-shapes the position in a way so that it doesn’t look anything like it used to.

Some companies would rather exclude the incumbent manager from recommending replacement candidates, as it can be seen as threatening, and when asked, they often come up with blank lists or weak candidates.

However, just because there isn’t a formal, HR-driven succession plan for your position, that doesn’t mean you can’t create one yourself.

Why would any leader want to bother, especially if they are even not being asked to?

There are at least four compelling reasons:

1. So that you are not seen as “irreplaceable”

On the surface, being so important that no one else could replace you seems like a good deal. That’s job security, right? Well, that’s OK if you want to do the same job for the rest of your career. But if you have aspirations to do something different (like get promoted), then being irreplaceable is painting yourself into a career corner. I have been in the meetings when those decisions are made — it happens.

2. So that you can take time off with peace of mind.

Being “replaceable” has immediate, tangible benefits, too. You can actually take a vacation, maternity or disability leave, or time off for some other reason without worrying about your department falling apart or being called in to clean up the mess.

3. Failure to groom a successor is seen as poor leadership.

Talent management is considered a critical competency for leaders these days. Leaders that do it well have higher performing organizations and are seen as being strategic and confident leaders. If your management looks at your position and doesn’t see a viable slate of candidates, you’ll be labeled a leader that can’t coach, delegate, develop, or let go. The heck with that promotion, maybe it’ll be time to replace you for not doing your job.

4. If self-interest and fear aren’t enough motivation, then think about your legacy.

Frances Hesselbein, considered by Peter Drucker to be one of the greatest leaders of all time, said it best: “Successful transition is the last act of a great leader.”

You’ve worked hard to make a difference, establish a vision, achieve results, and build your team. Why wouldn’t you want someone that you handpicked and groomed to step into your role and continue to build on what you’ve created?

Once you’ve made the decision to plan for your own succession, here are a few tips on how to do it:

1. Define the future requirements for your position.

Unless you’re planning on leaving next week, don’t think about the skills needed to do your job as it exists today – think about what it would take to be successful three to five years in the future. It’s a good exercise in strategic thinking, and it may even change the way you’re approaching your own development.

2. Assess your team.

Use a performance and potential matrix to assess your own team. Does anyone have the potential to be considered a candidate for the role as you’ve envisioned it in the future? If so, put them on your “short list” of successors.

3. Look outside of your team.

A well-rounded, talented, diverse “virtual bench” should include one or two candidates from your team (if they exist) and two or three from outside of your immediate team. They could be from within your organization or external. These external candidates could also be part of your virtual bench for new hires or replacements on your own team.

4. Coach and develop your succession candidates.

Coaching and developing will help everyone on your team become better performers; it shouldn’t be limited to just potential successors. However, if you are preparing someone to step into your role, either short term (i.e., a vacation or leave), or long term, development has a different focus. It’s not just about helping them do their own job better; it’s preparing them to do your job through stretch assignments, delegation, training, coaching, and feedback.

5. Share your succession plan with your boss.

If you have enough self-confidence to create your own succession plan, then share it with your manager. Why? In addition to the benefits already listed above, it’s a chance to get feedback and another perspective. Who knows, maybe your manager knows something about your role’s future requirements that you were not aware of, has opinions about the performance and potential of your candidates, or has other candidate suggestions. It’s all good information to share and be aware of.

How about you? Are you ready to create your own succession plan?

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.