You can’t run a business, regardless of its size, without talented people ready to move into key positions when the current occupants leave. Even the most successful employers can run off a cliff if they don’t have a solid succession plan in place.

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is a strategy for identifying and developing future leaders at your company — not just at the top but for major roles at all levels. It helps your business prepare for all contingencies by preparing high-potential workers for advancement.

Here are seven tips for kick-starting the succession planning process at your company.

1. Be proactive with a plan

Sometimes, you’ll know well in advance if a hard-to-replace team member is going to leave the company — a planned retirement is a good example. But other times, you’ll be caught off-guard by a sudden and potentially disorienting employee departure. That’s why you need a plan — now.

First, consider all the key roles on your team and answer these two questions:

  • What’s the day-to-day impact of X position on our company or department?
  • If the person currently in X position left, how would that affect our operations?

2. Pinpoint succession candidates

Once you have a handle on the ripple effect that the departure of certain employees might cause, choose team members who could potentially step into those positions.

Ask yourself:

  • If we were to hire for X position internally, which employees would be the strongest candidates for stepping into this role?
  • Would those candidates need training? And, if so, what type?

While the obvious successor to a role may be the person who is immediately next in line in the organizational chart, don’t discount other promising employees. Look for people who display the skills necessary to thrive in higher positions, regardless of their current title.

But don’t just assume you know how people on your team view their career goals. You may have certain team members in mind for senior management roles, but who’s to say they’ll even be interested in the idea once it’s presented to them? If you haven’t already, talk to these employees about how they view their professional future before making your succession choices.


3. Let them know

In private meetings, explain to each protege that they’re being singled out for positions of increasing importance. Establish an understanding that there are no guarantees, and the situation can change due to circumstances encountered by either the company or the succession candidates themselves.

4. Step up professional development efforts

Ideally, you have already been investing in the career development of those you select as your succession choices. Now that preparation needs to be ramped up. Job rotation is a good way to help your candidates gain additional knowledge and experience. And connecting them with mentors can boost their abilities in the critical area of soft skills: The best leaders have strong communication skills, as well as polished interpersonal abilities, such as empathy and diplomacy.

5. Do a trial run of your succession plan

Don’t wait until there’s a crisis to test whether an employee has the right stuff to assume a more advanced role. Have a potential successor assume some responsibilities of a manager who’s taking a vacation. The employee will gain valuable experience and appreciate the opportunity to shine. And you can assess where that person might need some additional training and development.

6. Integrate your succession plan into your hiring strategy

Once you’ve identified employees as successors for critical roles in your organization, take note of any talent gaps they would leave behind if tapped. That can help you identify where to focus your future recruiting efforts.

7. Think about your own successor

When making a succession plan for your organization, keep in mind that your own role will someday require backfilling. Maybe you’ll decide to take advantage of a new opportunity, or you’ll put in your time and retire from the workforce. So it’s important to ask yourself, which employee could step into your shoes one day? And what can you do, starting now, to help that person prepare for the transition?

The members of your workforce aren’t fixed assets — and changes in your team’s lineup are inevitable. You may not always be able to predict a valued employee’s departure from the firm. But through effective succession planning, you can pave the way for the continuity so critical to your business’s future.

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