How Leaders Can Plan Their Own Succession

It’s important for leaders to take an active role in their own succession planning.
Leaders Plan Succession

Finding a successor to take over an executive’s role is one key aspect of career advancement. And yet, it is often overlooked. This is true for CEOs down to front-line managers, though CEOs must pay attention to succession because of the attention a leadership transition garners.

For many leaders, succession is an afterthought to their myriad of job demands. But what most leaders miss is that a proactive effort to plan for and develop a successor can accelerate career progression and stop them from remaining in a role too long.

The reality is that the demands of leadership are greater than ever, resources are stretched thin and leaders don’t have much time to think about their next move or how to backfill their position. That said, leaders that think ahead will be rewarded. Why? Because, often, the greatest obstacle to progression is not being able to move on due to a lack of active effort to identify and develop potential successors for the roles they are leaving.

Think about it — all managers know you will want to move on at some point, but the biggest headache for them is determining their replacement. Fix that, and they’re on to bigger, better things.

RELATED: Why CEOs Should Plot Their Own Succession

Here are some approaches and considerations from experience that will help leaders with succession.

Identify Potential Successors

First, look close to home for a potential successor. Who on the immediate staff has the potential to grow into your leadership role?

If leaders cannot identify anyone who appears ready to advance to their role within a two-to-three-year period, take that as a sign that they haven’t invested enough time and resources in active talent management. Do not make that mistake in the future. If there is no immediate person on staff, look for peers who might be ready for a horizontal move, or direct reports of peers who are viewed as high potential.

If candidates are still hard to come by, look more broadly to high performers elsewhere in the company. Leaders should also consider talking to their HR support person. They have broad exposure to talent and sit in on talent reviews where capability and growth-potential are discussed. Most important, think outside the box. A leader’s replacement doesn’t have to be a carbon-copy of their own skills and experience.

Develop Identified Successors

Identification is the easy part. Ideally, leaders would end up with two or more viable potential successors for their role.

Now, the real work is in developing those successors. Each successor should have a clear and concrete development plan that aggressively targets the specific skills, expertise and relationships necessary to successfully perform the role. Most development plans are a bit of a joke, developed to fulfill the requirement of completing a performance review.

Do not let successors make the same mistake. Work with them to create a robust plan that is implemented in full, with ongoing executive guidance and active involvement.

Should Leaders Let Successors Know? 

This question is a real conundrum. Ideally, potential successors know that they’re recognized as possessing the ability to take on a higher role.

But the decision to tell them or not is problematic. On one hand, telling them enables the leader to engage directly and build the type of targeted, rigorous plan that accelerates readiness to assume their role. The tradeoff is that telling them can lead them to think the job is in the bag, which may stunt their desire to grow into the role. This is also problematic if leaders are grooming more than one potential successor.

I’m always a fan of transparency. In a mature organization, it should be okay to tell multiple people they could be a successor. Still, they must earn it through proactive preparation and personal growth.

Communicate the Succession Plan

Another important thing that leaders often miss is letting key audiences know they have a succession plan in place. This involves communicating to a leader’s manager and HR that they’re actively working to advance a replacement when the time is right.

Letting managers know leaders have a succession plan in place should be reassuring to them. But, before communicating it, they should discuss their career aspirations and next steps, including ballpark timing for when the leader sees themselves ready to move on.

Leaders need to first reach general agreement on this with their manager. Then, discus the efforts to identify and develop successors.

That will ensure a fast and smooth transition so that the operation they are leaving does not miss a beat with their departure. It also secures leaders’ reputation as someone who thinks beyond themselves while enabling potential successors to transition roles faster without having to perform their old and new jobs for an extended period of time.

James Brooks is an executive coach and chief innovation officer for SurePeople, a cloud-based learning provider. To comment, email