The Importance of Succession Planning

In the post-COVID-19 crisis landscape, a strong succession plan is critical

Managing succession is one of the many must-have strategies that help your organisation to better plan for the future, which thanks to COVID-19, the need to have emergency succession planning, has come more sharply into focus than perhaps ever before. 

Whilst it’s vitally important to have a plan in place for business-critical C suite roles, what the crisis has also done, is highlighted how mission-critical it is to devote time and attention to identifying future leaders for key operational roles, of which the organisation’s success depends. 

Traditional succession management has sought to focus on the practice of emergency executive succession planning, yet the pandemic has demonstrated how shortsighted this practice can be. Replacement planning for a senior team offers little management of risk, in the shadow of a public health crisis which can indiscriminately affect any employee, at any level. Furthermore, COVID-19 has provided a shift in view, of who is also considered central to operational success, in the case of key workers. 

As a result, retaining, developing and nurturing future talent across key operations is essential to maximise results and mitigate risk for the future.

Expanding your succession planning strategy for maximum benefit

Planning for who will succeed the most senior roles in your organisation, by identifying individuals to prime and support in readiness of when the incumbent leaves or retires is part one of your succession planning strategy. 

Yet to maximise the benefits of your succession plan, identifying the operational roles in your organisation which are business-critical should happen in tandem with this activity. 

Business-critical roles are often broad and deep within a business – Which the crisis has highlighted. From the customer-facing key workers who have kept the flow of supplies going, to operational leaders who have managed distribution supply chains in the most challenging of lock-down circumstances, to the medical administrators who have relentlessly reorganised cancelled health appointments as the crisis took hold. All of these roles now benefit from the evaluation process, becoming included in your talent review and succession planning strategy.

What goes into a succession plan?

Much like all organisational strategies, a succession plan will follow similar roadmap principles. The critical factors will include what – areas of the organisation do the plan apply to? Who – within those areas are the preferred employees to succeed in leadership roles? When –  is this succession plan designed to happen, what eventualities will this plan extend to? Why – has the selected individual been selected, what qualities do they have, why are the best person to succeed in leadership responsibilities? How –  will the organisation support, nurture and develop this individual to become ready to step up when the time arises? 

Succession plans also benefit by including 

  • Your organisational goals 
  • Operational model 
  • Ownership & leader roles
  • Management roles 
  • Your chosen successors

What should the succession planning process include?

Evaluating the roles across the organisation that will require a successor is the first step, followed by formalising the strategy into a succession business plan. HR leaders will be working closely with the current function leads to understand the respective business functions, identifying the roles to comprise the succession plan and identifying future talent who will succeed in those roles.

The talent review itself need not be a long-drawn-out affair. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything it’s how effective and efficient processes like this can be, leveraging the digital capability to hold the discussions virtually if needed. 

Rising future talent discussions, evaluations of past performance reviews and OKR scoring can also be accessed easily when using HR software such as CakeHR, where performance scores and balanced scorecards are readily viewable, aiding both discission and decision making. 

CakeHR - Human Resources Management Software | Sage UK
CakeHR – Human Resources Management Software | Sage UK

Once talent assessments have been made and the identification of successors agreed, formalising the succession plan is the final step ahead of moving to communicate and working closely with those identified for advancement. 

Communicating the Succession Plan

It should come as no surprise that communicating the succession plan is an essential part of the planning process. Yet in previous times it was commonplace to identify the talent in your organisation for advancement, without actually communicating these plans to the individuals selected. Suffice to say that if you’re leading HR for any one of the hundreds of organisations who would practice opaque communications around succession planning in the past, now is 100% the time to change that. 

Communication, knowledge sharing and looking within are keys to effective talent development and leadership transitions

The crisis has revealed to us how critical effective communications are – Leaving employees in the dark, whilst decisions are made amongst senior levels is no longer an acceptable practice. 

It makes good business sense to engage with those selected for succession, working closely with them to establish their interest levels in the advancement opportunity available. Where does this sit with their personal career objectives? Does this align with their vision for their career future? And crucially what knowledge or skills gaps will need support and enhancement in readiness of their stepping up into a higher level of role?

Supporting those with high talent & poised to step up is crucial

The likelihood is that those with talent at a level to demonstrate the capability to advance within your organisation, are more likely to be contributing disproportionately to your organisation’s success. 

A Mckinsey study on attracting & retaining top talent found that high performers are 800% more productive than low performers. The impact being in this COVID-19 crisis, that those with greater capabilities are also more likely to have carried the heaviest load. Potentially forming part of, or leading emergency task forces to respond to the demands of the crisis and taking on additional responsibilities in the wake of fellow colleagues being off sick or temporarily placed on furlough. 

Why is talent important? Superior talent is up to eight times more productive

The resulting impact of this additional responsibility in the midst of a crisis could have weighed heavy on your top performers, which makes the integrity of the support structure designed to aide their advancement all the more critical. 

Attracting and retaining the right talent
Attracting and retaining the right talent

HR leaders partnering the management of those poised for succession will help in the focus of their energy & efforts, whilst also prioritising their well-being. Coaching, advice & support are also essential components of the support required to retain succession talent.

Developing future-ready leadership

COVID-19 has proven to be a time of absolute uncertainty, with the future continuing to have elements of what next? What is certain however is that the human and economic costs of this pandemic remain to be fully understood and are likely to be felt for some considerable time to come. This period of instability and having to quickly adapt to the demands of the new normal has been a difficult one, yet this is the time that your future leaders are being asked to step into. 

With more challenges set to come, technological advancements abound and change to organisational structures resulting in redundancies that have already commenced. The strategy now to contend with the unprecedented pace that sees these challenges arising is to revise your succession management plan without further delay. 

As you’re faced with designing new organisational structures, systems, policies and processes to contend with these challenges the development of your future-ready leadership is what will help your organisation to thrive in the newly evolved times we now find ourselves in. 

Establish what you want your future-ready leadership to be comprised of, balancing transparency of the plans afoot with confidentiality. Whilst also being sure to adopt a fair selection process, one that not only retains your selected succession talent, but one that also seeks to avoid alienating your equally valuable employee’s whose contribution during this challenging period has also supported the organisation’s success.

Bringing it all together

Organisations are often faced with times of uncertainty and challenge, yet COVID-19’s disruption has been unique in that it has affected everyone globally, all at once. 

The pandemic has shone a light on how this massive change can impact health, economies and livelihoods, but has also demonstrated the need for agility, speed and adaptability to contend with the changes felt. 

Undoubtedly the essential consideration here for organisations is survival and how they can best navigate the unknowns of a post-COVID-19 landscape effectively. Through effective succession planning and supporting the leadership talent of the future, the ability to adapt to the many unknowns yet to be realised will be in far safer hands. 


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HR management software app system CakeHR human resources
HR management software app system CakeHR human resources

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Written By

Jade Taryn Graham

Jade is the founder & CEO of Inspired a people & talent consultancy working with the most innovative early stage companies worldwide. Founder & CCO of Inspired Talent Media Ltd and contributing writer for Sage HR where Jade writes about people, leadership, work/life balance and change.