Putting the success in succession planning

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Written by Eddie Kilkelly on 24 September 2014

Creating a succession plan is something we tend to do as a contingency measure. Typically, this is as a result of identifying an escapee. Someone who is expected to retire, to be promoted or to find an alternative position.

In order to plan for someone to “succeed” their colleague, we need to identify the qualities that would be lacking if that colleague was no longer here. We ask questions like: “If Sally decides to leave our company tomorrow what impact will that have on our business and will we be able to full her role? If a new project took Bill away from his current team, what expertise would we need to find? Or as a team leader what would you need to delegate and, who, if anyone, could step up if you were given additional responsibilities?”

It’s all about filling the knowledge gap and replacing skills that has been lost or is expected to be lost – and without disrupting the daily operations of the business. There is of course an alternative view that succession planning is about building capacity so that there is never a gap no matter how much the demand changes. Granted that some people will always be better than others and expertise, unfortunately, isn’t evenly distributed but it seems reasonable that managers should be balancing the team as a matter of course and ensuring that the gaps are filled and the team isn’t exposed. This is in fact the only way to build a high-performing team.

So how do you set about doing this and will the team buy in to what could seem like extra work for no additional reward? As a leader, it is our job to develop our team so that they can move at pace. It is a sad reality, while incredibly rewarding, that ensuring your team can develop their capabilities and fulfil their potential is a self-fulfilling prophecy. This will raise their horizons and they will soon move on to new opportunities, challenges and promotions. There is a huge amount of research to suggest that there are very many skills shortages in business and also that your team members will move on anyway if you don’t give them development opportunities.

Planning for success and staying agile

Step number one is to know where the expertise within the team really lies. As a manager you probably feel comfortable with this but does everyone else in the team know what you know particularly if you have a virtual team based in different locations or you have new starters. For example, if an employee is overloaded but is the expert in a particular area then does everyone else know who, other than Dan, can help? Alternately, does that employee become a bottleneck to capacity or even worse a risk to quality?

  1. Map out where the expertise is located so that everyone can see it and, importantly, remember it.  Verify that what you’re being told is accurate.  The middle of a crisis isn’t the time to find out that someone has been “show-boating” all along and is only two pages ahead in the manual.
  2. Test your network by mapping the bottlenecks that occur regularly thus identifying those key areas of expertise where capacity needs to be increased.  Then consider the priority areas for development bearing in mind the strategic goals for the team.  This way you create a development plan to enable the team to grow.  Among the priorities you will want to consider any potential escapees at this stage and plan to cover for their departure (for whatever reason).
  3. Set about improving the team’s capacity.  Identify who is keen and well suited to taking on additional skillsets within the team and create a plan for developing their increased competence.  This plan should include a combination of training, coaching and shadowing activities as appropriate.
  4. Re-draw your network of strengths and expertise to show the added capacity and re-distribute to the wider team.  Encourage the team to look for support among their extended network in order to further develop capacity and capability.

For added value, share this with your customers and suppliers. It is so much more efficient if queries are initially directed to the right person. This could lead to more bottlenecks so revisit the network and plan for more development.

As a result the team will pick up pace and the number of capacity issues will reduce. Granted, this remains a self-fulfilling prophecy and you will regularly need to revisit your network as the business and the team make-up changes but you will be remembered as a great and a most supportive leader.

Eddie Kilkelly is managing director at insynergi

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