Key Components of a Successful Succession Program

As faithful readers know, I have had the pleasure of working on a number of succession management projects with organizations in a cross-section of industries including mining, investment capital, professional services, engineering, tourism, and utilities. Through this work, as well as my experience teaching succession management best practices and coaching leaders on career and leadership development, I have gained a deep understanding of key components for a successful succession management program.  Here is a quick summary for you. Key Components:

  • Sponsorship -  For succession management to work it needs to be sponsored by the Board and by the CEO. The board must view it as a strategic imperative and the CEO must be held accountable to delivering on succession management goals for mission critical roles.  With this level of accountability, leaders at all levels of the organization will do what they need to do in order to develop their leaders and / or source potential successors outside the business.
  • Selection Systems – There must be a process for matching capabilities with organizational needs and for identifying high potential leaders.  To do this, I recommend avoiding complex competency models and instead focusing on defining what success looks like in key roles, or at key levels in the organization, and creating promotion criteria.  Also, it is important to acknowledge and address what could potentially derail a leader. This is best done through a talent review process, and leadership selection tools.
  • Create Development Plans – Leadership Development Plans need to clearly identify the business results that must be achieved, as well as the leadership behaviours that will prepare leaders to advance to the next level. My recommendation is that leaders focus on only one or two key behaviours at a time.  By doing so, they acquire best practice knowledge related to the behaviour and they practice applying the concepts in multiple contexts to the point that it becomes a habit.

  • Avoid Complexity – The best succession systems are developmentally oriented and simple.  They are more concerned with the continuing growth of high potential leaders than an ultimate job title.  They also introduce a disciplined process that continually reminds people that leadership development is a top priority and every manager’s responsibility.
  • Executive Accountability – Once the plans are developed, ensure that the executive team meets regularly to review the high potential leader’s progress.  Create accountability mechanisms for the executives, so they understand that their role is to facilitate the process, sponsor development opportunities, and remove obstacles.
  • Track and Measure Effectiveness – Tracking succession program success involves creating measures of success related to the leadership selection process, and tracking how many leaders get promoted, stay with the business, and perform at the next level in the business.