• Apr 18 2024

8 Common Succession Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Employee turnover is a constant at any company — and that reality extends to the very top. Sooner or later, no matter how steadfast it seems, your business’s leadership will change.

Yet, a surprising number of organizations don’t have a solid succession plan in place. According to the 2023 Gartner Board of Directors Talent Survey, only about half (51%) of surveyed board directors say their organization has a written plan for the current CEO’s succession.

Identifying and preparing leaders to succeed in a company’s most important roles is a must — and knowing what not to do can often be as helpful as knowing what to do. With that in mind, here are eight common succession planning mistakes to avoid.

1. Planning only for succession emergencies

Sudden departures happen, but they’re not the only scenario to plan for. After all, an estimated 10,000 Baby Boomers reach retirement age each day in the United States, and many of them are in leadership roles at their organizations today. As such, succession planning requires an ongoing, evergreen process for replacing high-impact leaders. It should encompass every level and every department of the company — not just the C-Suite.

An organization’s long-term health and success hinges upon a healthy succession pipeline. To ensure this, HR and Talent teams should identify long-term organizational goals, and align their hiring and development strategy to make sure future leaders have the critical skills needed to succeed.

2. Failing to secure buy-in on your succession plan from senior stakeholders and the board

While HR plays a big role in talent acquisition, succession planning is tightly bound to the long-term strategy and goals of the company. The process needs holistic input and buy-in from the current CEO, the board of directors, and senior leaders across the entire business. Each of these organizational roles is, in one way or another, charged with guiding the future of the company. They each bring valuable insights and perspectives that help assure an effective succession plan.

When high-level decision-makers are not included in the succession planning process, your program is at risk of being poorly aligned to long-term business objectives — and you may hire or develop leaders who are not best suited to drive the future of the company.

3. Neglecting your HiPo pool

Developing successors internally is almost always preferable to hiring successors externally for many reasons. For one thing, it’s more cost-effective to develop a talented leader with the skills they need than to compete for executive-level talent in the marketplace. Additionally, developing internal talent for the highest levels of leadership demonstrates to employees that there is no “promotion ceiling” at your organization. It fosters a culture of growth and development that is motivating to high-performers. 

Many organizations have programs to identify high-potential (HiPo) employees and nurture them for future leadership roles. Being able to draw from a strong bench of HiPos–and their deep reservoir of institutional knowledge– leaves a company well positioned for successions. 

However, merely identifying HiPos isn’t enough. Potential leaders need guidance when it comes to developing core competencies that align with the organization’s strategic goals. They need ongoing opportunities to learn, grow, and stay current with relevant capabilities. Ignoring this is one of the more common succession mistakes that can weaken your company’s overall succession plan.

4. Deploying one-size-fits-all development programs for successors

Leadership development for successors is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The unique skill set required of a CEO will be different from that required of a Chief Technology Officer.  Furthermore, each successor will have   unique strengths and weaknesses.

For this reason, it’s essential that each successor’s development path is tailored to their needs. Successors should enroll in development programs that target their capability gaps to accelerate their readiness to step into a specific role. They should have flexible learning options, including live and self-paced courses that fit into busy schedules. 

Successors’ development plans should also include project-based learning that is specific to the role they will be stepping into to give them practice solving real-world leadership challenges at an executive level. 

Crucially, successors need access to experienced executive coaches to prepare and guide them through their leadership transition. Coaches can work with successors to help them shift their mindset and focus to a new set of priorities, delegate, and build their leadership presence. Ideally, successors will be paired with coaches who have similar professional backgrounds and understand the nuances of the hurdles successors face as they step into their new role.

Failing to offer individualized development can result in successors who are not prepared with the necessary capabilities to perform in their new roles. 

5. Not having a set timeline or clear criteria for success

One of the most common succession planning mistakes is not having a clear timeline or calendar-driven benchmarks. Succession planning often gets pushed aside by more pressing concerns of the moment, like quarterly financials.

But determining the readiness of a new leader to step into a senior role becomes much more difficult when it has to happen in real-time — and in high-stakes scenarios. Making succession planning a defined process with measurable goals and deadlines ensures that future leaders are actively learning and developing needed competencies. Tracking relevant metrics can provide a clear picture of what success looks like to all stakeholders.

6. Lacking objectivity in the successor selection process

It’s easy for bias to creep into successor selection. Well-liked leaders, high-performing individuals, and candidates with profiles similar to the departing executive are sometimes favored over other candidates who might be a better fit for the role.

To avoid this pitfall, rigorous and objective assessments of each candidate are necessary. Be sure you have a firm grasp on their capabilities, knowledge or skills gaps, and overall readiness to succeed in a senior role.

7. Failing to support a leader’s transition

Implementing a succession plan doesn’t end with a new leader stepping into their role. Transitions take time, and new leaders may require ongoing support as they work through a challenging process. This is an area where many companies can struggle: More than 74% of leaders report feeling underprepared to tackle the challenges they will face in their new role.

For example, a new leader may need assistance shifting their mindset so it aligns well with the needs of their new role. Or, they may need help understanding and navigating the unique dynamics of the organization at a higher level. Supporting them through this shift requires focused coaching, tailored learning opportunities, and continuous feedback loops.

8. Keeping your succession plan a secret

While it can feel like a sensitive initiative that needs safeguarding, effective succession planning requires transparency. The assessment and selection process and criteria should be clear and understandable to all employees. According to Deloitte’s 2024 Global Human Capital Trends research, 86% of leaders believe that the more transparent the organization is, the greater the amount of workforce trust.

Transparency in succession allows leaders at all levels of the organization to align their own development with organizational goals. This reinforces a culture of professional growth and upward mobility, which can ultimately drive employee motivation and performance.

Making succession planning an ongoing process comes with a host of benefits, from greater security for the long-term success of the organization to a developed pipeline and process for cultivating new leaders. Establishing clear development programs with firm timelines and trackable metrics can go a long way toward avoiding the most common succession planning mistakes — and ensuring a more seamless future.

Ready to learn more? Contact us today to discover how ExecOnline can assist you in developing a succession plan.

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