Succession planning focuses on identifying and developing potential future leaders and senior managers to fill business-critical positions, usually including practical, tailored work experience relevant to future key roles.

Plans can focus on individual roles and positions, either short or long term (implying ‘fast-track’ routes to the top) or take a more generic approach by creating a talent pool of positions for which similar skills are required.

Focusing on the top two or three management levels should mean the process remains manageable in terms of the number of people involved. The CIPD also reports a growing focus on identifying groups of jobs (perhaps clustered by role, function, and/or level) to enable potential successors to be developed capable of filling a variety of roles, rather than specific ear-marked jobs.

An ongoing process.

In the current climate of skills shortages at all levels there has been renewed interest in succession planning which the CIPD characterises as "quite different from the old version, with a broader vision, greater openness and diversity, and closer links to wider talent management practices".

Succession planning is an ongoing process to meet changing organisation needs – if plans are not continually updated, they become increasingly ineffective – so those responsible need to know as much as possible about the future of the business, how it is likely to change, and how such changes might affect the skills future leaders need to possess. But while there is no one model nor hard-and-fast rules for succession planning, there are some key areas: 

  • identifying and developing groups of jobs or roles to enable the identification of potential successors
  • clustering jobs by role, function and level to establish the generic skills required 
  • ensuring groups of employees have the required skills to fulfil a number of roles

"new talent introduced below board level allows an adjustment to the culture and development within the organisation"

There are also advantages in bringing new talent, with new ideas and approaches, into organisations. Although there is no clear consensus on the ideal proportion of insiders/outsiders, the CIPD suggests a ratio of 80:20.

There are differences of opinion about the level they should be brought in: new talent introduced below board level allows an adjustment to the culture and development within the organisation, while the arrival of an outsider at board level brings completely new and fresh thinking, which may be desirable for a failing organisation.

But don't forget that while succession planning can help retention of staff who are at least aware of the possibility, if not already participating in, such opportunities for career progression, the corollary must be that talented people not selected for such advancement might be likely to consider taking their talents elsewhere.