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A Succession Plan Isn’t the End of Succession Planning

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By Lillian J. LeBlanc and Susan Servais, CAE

Congratulations! You’ve just finalized your organization’s succession plan, and that’s a notable accomplishment. According to an article published in 2015 by McKinsey, two-thirds of U.S. public and private companies do not have a formal succession plan.  

No doubt, many hours of leadership and administrative time have been invested to produce your succession plan. You can now move confidently forward, secure in the knowledge that you have a strategy to address future gaps in key leadership positions.

Or can you?

Completing a succession plan that includes all mission critical positions is an important goal for any organization, but it isn’t the end of succession planning. "The only way to have a robust and reliable succession plan is to map succession to the pipeline of internal executive talent, identify deficiencies in internal talent, and design and implement development plans to overcome these," say the authors of Stanford University’s 2014 Report on Senior Executive Succession Planning and Talent Development. The same study reported that only 25 percent of respondents believe that there is an adequate pool of ready successor candidates for key C-suite positions. When a succession plan lacks the depth of ready successors, it fails to effectively position the organization for leadership continuity. 

Business news abounds with examples of organizations that have suddenly been faced with the need to execute a succession strategy. The well-known death of David Goldberg, CEO of Survey Monkey and husband of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, is one example. In 2003, McDonald’s Corporation tapped retired executive Jim Cantalupo to replace its underperforming CEO, but Cantalupo suffered a fatal heart attack just 16 months later.

There are also many examples of what we call "succession plan disruption." The departure of an identified successor for a key position requires immediate action, to ensure the plan’s continued viability. American Express faced this challenge in 2015, when 55-year-old Ed Gilligan, President and successor to the company’s CEO, collapsed and died while traveling home from a business trip. Disney made headlines in April 2016 with the abrupt resignation of the likely successor to the CEO. Thomas Staggs announced his departure from Disney after failure to receive a guarantee that he would eventually be named to lead the company.

A succession plan yields the best results when it is regarded as a living document and managed as a talent development plan. The goal of succession planning isn’t to place names in boxes; rather, it is to identify the pipeline of talent for key positions, so that talent can be developed and sustained in an optimal state of promotional readiness. 

There are two crucial steps that must follow the succession planning process to ensure depth of ready talent for the organization’s most important positions. Essentially, leaders must be developed from within the organization or hired from outside the organization. 

1. Develop Internally
There are several ways to help internal talent develop their leadership skills. 

Providing a leader with an opportunity for a stretch assignment can be a valuable experience that also allows the organization to test how the individual functions in a different environment.  A leader might, for example, be assigned a key role in a multidisciplinary task force. How did he or she perform? What feedback do senior members of the task force offer? Walk the path carefully between growth and over-burdening; however, often these opportunities add to an already heavy workload, resulting in poor performance due to over-commitment. 

Develop a mentoring program using senior team members or executives who are connected to your organization as advisers or board members. Mentors should be selected carefully and commit to ongoing involvement with their mentee and confidentiality about their interchanges. Mentoring works best when both mentor and mentee are clear on roles and responsibilities. Mentoring involves transfer of knowledge and expertise; therefore, the mentor must be fully committed to sharing all that he or she knows. The mentee must be open to learn from and apply the information offered by the mentor. It can be challenging to identify an appropriate mentor who has both the time and the interest to develop a relationship with a mentee. However, both are crucial to the success of mentoring. Without time and interest, the relationship will quickly founder.

One of the best ways to develop leadership talent is through one-on-one work with a professional coach. Using his or her skills in active listening and powerful questioning, a coach can help a leader achieve meaningful insight into his or her own leadership competency strengths and gaps. From this insight, the leader and coach will co-create actionable and sustainable strategies to enhance the leader’s skills and behaviors. 

It’s important to seek a coach who is qualified to use the title. One way to find a quality coach is to seek an individual who is a member of the International Coach Federation ( He or she has demonstrated a commitment to quality coach training, continuing education and adherence to a strict code of ethics. Unlike a mentor, whose role is to transfer specific functional knowledge to the leader, a coach does not need to have experience in your industry or in the position for which the leader is preparing. Further, a coach is generally not involved in organizational politics and can look at issues objectively. The coach’s expertise lies in his or her ability to listen well below the surface of a conversation, to connect with the leader and to support him or her in the creation of personalized developmental strategies. 

2. Hire Externally
If you have key positions that do not have an identified internal successor (either immediately ready to step in or able to do so with minimal development), consider creating a plan to hire an external successor candidate.  

You can accomplish this with internal resources or engage help from outside your organization. Finding key leaders is much more difficult and requires a different set of skills and background than identifying and recruiting individuals for technical, staff or even middle-management positions. 

Partnering with a skilled executive search firm that has a track record of success in your industry is a smart strategy. A skilled search professional can help you source, screen and evaluate candidates based on your organization’s strategic needs. Working in concert with you, the search professionals take time to understand your culture and learn exactly what’s important to be successful in your organization. The search team can also help you craft the most appropriate career path by which an external successor can assimilate into your organization’s culture and gain the skills necessary for long-term success.

Succession planning is an important process for any organization, yet it is one that requires a considerable investment of leadership time and energy. Organizational succession plans are valuable assets, but the succession plan must be managed as a development plan to ensure a solid pipeline of ready talent for key positions. Approaching succession planning as an ongoing strategic initiative will ensure that your organization will be prepared to quickly and effectively address unexpected gaps in crucial leadership positions.
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About the Authors: Lillian LeBlanc is a principal and professional coach for Ibis Coaching, LLC, and regularly collaborates with ZurickDavis, a Massachusetts-based national executive search firm. She is credentialed as a Professional Certified Coach by the International Coach Federation and has more than 30 years of experience as a human resources professional. Susan Servais, CAE, is a senior vice president at ZurickDavis, which places C-level and VP-level leaders in both permanent and interim positions. She is a member of NE/SAE. 

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