Succession Planning: 6 Ways to Tell if Your Leadership is Future-Proof

Succession planning is the best way to future-proof your business. Assess how prepared your leadership is for the future with these six key questions.

Andrea Plotnick, SVP, Board and Executive Solutions

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Are your leaders ready to rumble?

There’s a world of upheaval on the horizon for business leaders. Back to work plans need to be devised, deployed and – depending on where your office is located – even delayed or re-devised. Ambitious transformation agendas that may have started pre-pandemic have been amplified in importance and accelerated through the pandemic. Your employees are mentally and physically exhausted and looking to their leaders for motivation and support. Your leaders are similarly exhausted. And the pandemic – that relentless presence in all our lives – shows no sign of abating.

The pandemic has exposed pre-pandemic shortcomings in key talent management functions as they relate to leadership development and succession and is threatening a seismic shift in the leadership ranks of most companies. It is leading some individual leaders to choose earlier than planned retirement and exposing others as bad fits for current and future challenges.

At the same time, employee surveys show clearly that your top talent – the broad constituency within your workforce from which you often pluck the next generation of leaders – are either actively looking for other opportunities or are being aggressively recruited by other organizations.

These circumstances have highlighted two significant succession challenges.

First, do you have the right leaders in place to step up on an emergency basis if critical roles become vacant through unplanned temporary or permanent departures? When were the plans last reviewed and do they allow for business continuity?

Second, how much long-term succession planning have you done to identify and groom talent for planned departures? In other words, do you have the bench strength to fill those critical roles – possibly a lot sooner than expected? Is your succession planning forward-focused, factoring in whether your identified talent embraces the skills and behaviours that define fit-for-future leadership, or are they just echoes of the leaders who are making way? Layer on top of that, have you paid sufficient attention to diversity and inclusion in building your bench strength?

That’s a very long shopping list of needs and shortcomings and, as most businesspeople know, there isn’t always enough time to cover all your bases when it comes to talent management. But one step you simply cannot leave out is a careful assessment of your organizational bench strength and succession planning. Do you have the people to fill critical roles, and do they have the skills to lead into the future?

The following mini-quiz won’t give you a roadmap to a comprehensive succession plan, but it should help you expose areas of immediate need.


  1. How often are you having succession planning conversations?
    Many organizations see succession planning as an event that kicks into gear once a vacancy has materialized. Succession planning is actually an ongoing process to assess, re-assess and modify talent management strategies to ensure that you are not left with a hole that cannot be filled seamlessly. If you’re a senior leader or an HR professional, and you can’t remember the last strategic succession planning meeting they’ve had, then it’s probably been too long. If it is not part of annual talent reviews, you may be falling short. If it hasn’t been considered in light of strategy changes it may be obsolete. If it doesn’t make it onto the Board agenda, your organization may be exposed.

  2. How deep do you need to drill in your succession plan?
    A good succession plan will tell you who is ready now to step into a critical position, and who might be ready within varying time horizons to plan for different scenarios. The primary focus should be on your critical roles – those you cannot afford to have vacant. - and consider the domino effect. As leaders are targeted to move into new roles, what does their succession plan look like, in turn?

  3. Does your organization have the talent to improve D&I in the leadership ranks?
    Although it is a top-of-mind issue for most organizations, efforts to organically improve leadership D&I have largely failed. If we are to make real progress in increasing under-represented groups in leadership, organizations need to become more planful and deliberate, rather than just hoping that the problem will address itself. Asking yourself this question should reveal whether you have an untapped reservoir of diverse talent ready to step into leadership roles, or whether it will be necessary to look outside.

  4. Are your leaders of the future really fit for the future?
    Organizations need to define the leadership culture and critical competencies key to future success. While your strategy will determine some of what is identified, there are some over-arching changes that have taken hold. Top talent is demanding a new relationship dynamic with their leaders. Communication, truth telling, connection, inclusion, empathy, and self-awareness are critically important now and will only gain in importance in the new world of work. Once you define a leadership culture, you can assess your current leaders and high potential talent against those future skills and behaviours, to see who has what it takes, where to focus development, and who may not be the best fit for your plans.

  5. How will you know when to go external?
    A dynamic succession plan should start early enough to allow a focus on internal candidates and grooming them for roles, unless there is a significant strategy change that requires new skill sets. The starting point should always be the talent that is needed – the skills, capabilities, competencies- and then using this as the backdrop to assess leaders This demand-driven, objective assessment provides the foundation for determining a development roadmap for internal leaders and/or when an external candidate is the right answer. In some instances, this may mean hiring someone to go directly into a key leadership role; in other situations, it may mean hiring someone externally with the intent to develop them for a critical role. Following this approach sends the right message internally, regarding growth opportunities, while ensuring that the organization has the talent it needs. And recruitment is focused where it needs to be, not as the fallback response to ensure business continuity.

  6. Do you also have a crisis management plan?
    In addition to long-term planning, the pandemic has certainly amplified the need for all leaders to be thinking about unplanned and emergency needs. While this might include separation because of illness, or unanticipated retirements, there are certain types of sudden departures that require a more nuanced approach, such as a leader who is forced to step down for performance or questionable behaviour. Does your organization have a rapid-response emergency protocol and an emergency successor identified?

The pandemic and other societal impacts that have coalesced have taken a huge toll on business leaders. So much so, that it’s very hard to foresee the full impact it’s going to have on individuals who may be in desperate need of respite or a change. Organizations that build broad succession plans that account for both long-term and short-term departures will be well served well into the future.

Planning ahead allows you to achieve full value from existing leadership bench strength, and support them with targeted recruitment of external talent when necessary. It’s the difference between a state or organizational readiness and having to apply knee-jerk solutions to key talent decisions.

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