Why Succession Planning Doesn’t Work

Successful Succession

I’m a huge believer in succession planning. But so often, it doesn’t work.

Even when a company talks about succession planning, when there is a big job to be filled, the company goes outside.

I find it interesting is that many companies do one of two extremes when it comes to succession planning:

1.  Nothing at all

2. A very cumbersome process with lots of documents and checkpoints for multiple candidates which never amounts to anything.

Both of these miss the point. Doing nothing and hoping someone will step up without support is not a great plan, but the heavy programmatic approach also fails because it misses the core.

What I have found to be most effective is to think about succession planning with regard to a specific individual.

Get someone ready

Think about succession planning in its core form: 

How do you get someone (specific), ready to take your (specific) job?

This is a success even if the succession never happens, because you are creating a super-development plan for a high performer.

Even if it only ends in that, it is good for everyone. But is it also the best way to get someone truly ready for succession.

Succession planning is all about delegating

As a leader, when you want to develop a succession plan for a high performer, you need to be prepared to delegate big, hairy, strategic stuff, not just superficial, well contained, safe stuff.

3 key steps to getting a real succession plan in place

1. Let them practice your work

The first part of someone learning your job, is about the work. You need to give them opportunities to practice working at your level.

A lot of times we think the way to motivate our top performers is to have them work on the most fun or interesting projects. That works to a point, but it does not do anything to help get someone ready for your job.

Face it, how much fun work do YOU get to do?

You need to give them opportunities to practice the ugly, mind-numbing, heavily matrixed, controversial, boring, unsupported, failing, no-win kind of work you deal with every day when you wake up.

What is the hardest and most distasteful thing you own?

That’s what you give your top performer. You give them the benefit of seeing what it is really like in your shoes.

They get to suffer like you do. But they get to work on big stuff. They get access to your network and stakeholders. They have the chance to do something creative and heroic to get this done.

What may be drudgery for you, can be really motivating for someone who gets to step up. 

Don’t shy away from giving smart people hard work.

And don’t feel guilty about it. I often felt guilty delegating ugly stuff. But then I realized that this was better for everybody. And that people appreciate it. They don’t resent it because you are trusting them with a bigger job.

2. Let them practice your relationships

The next part of getting someone ready for your job is to make sure they are practiced, comfortable with, and welcome socially at the next level.

You need to give your top performer a chance to develop and practice at the next level relationships — your relationships.

Give them opportunities to present for you. Arrange one-on-one meetings with them and your peers. Send them as your delegate to your boss’s staff meeting when you are out of town. 

If your succession candidate does not develop personal relationships with your boss and peers they will never be ready to step into your job. 

And it won’t matter because they will not be given the chance if they are not someone that your peers want to include personally.

By the way, this is a key reason the spreadsheet version of succession planning does not result in actual placements.

Unless your candidate is viewed by your boss and peers as someone socially worthy of the role, they won’t get it. 

So your succession planning will fail. Either you will be stuck, or the company will go outside to fill your role when the time comes.

3. Let them practice your decisions

OK. Here is where the rubber meets the road. You need to give someone a chance to practice making the decisions that you make.

If you never delegate important decisions, you are fooling yourself that you are doing succession planning.

How will somebody ever be ready to take over, if you have owned all the decisions along the way?

Will you delegate important decisions?

Think about the next few months of decisions you need to make. Investments, priorities, partnerships, road map choices, marketing strategies. Give your top performer the task of owning the project AND the making decisions.

Let them feel the pressure of owning the outcome fully. 

Let them get the experience explaining, defending, and selling their choices. Let them get the experience fixing it if it goes wrong.

Is this scary? Yes.

Might they choose wrong? Yes. Might they choose better than you? Also yes.

The point is, if you never let them own and make key decisions, you are cutting off the single most important training you can give your successor. They will never be ready for your job without owning key decisions.

Patty Azzarello

Patty is available to speak at your company, annual meeting, or customer event. She can also deliver a custom workshop on Leadership or Strategy Execution for your leadership team. Contact Patty.

Or if you would like some personal help on your own professional development, check out her Executive Mentoring Group. It’s filled with insights, resources and support to build your executive confidence, advance your career, and includes direct mentoring from Patty.


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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at www.AzzarelloGroup.com, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

The ONE reason to leave a job
4 Steps to a High Performing Team