The View from HR

Succession planning requires more than a list of names

November 17, 2012 

With skill gaps growing and experienced baby boomers retiring, employers fret over “succession planning.”

The hope is that good candidates for promotion into hard-to-fill roles can be found within the company if the right plan is put in place. Too often, that plan is little more than a list of key roles with names of employees who might be ready to fill them one day.

There is nothing wrong with having a list of names and key roles; it is a start. But the chance that these people will actually be ready when the time comes, still on the payroll and still interested in the job is not great. That is, not without significant pre-work and conversation.

Thinking about who we have today who might be ready in the future is only part of the process. Proactive grooming, education and on-the-job experience are also required.

Sudden opening

Take the common example of a senior manager in a key role leaving suddenly. The longer the role goes unfilled, the greater the chance the wheels will come off her department. An internal promotion means a shorter learning curve, but do you have a person with the skills? An external search may find someone with better experience, but will they fit the customers, products, employees and the culture? Both paths have a great deal of risk without the right preparation.

Skill requirements come in two big buckets: technical and temperament. When key roles require both product and service knowledge, and the right kind of soft skills, a combination of education and experience is a must. The succession plan becomes more about creating actual, meaningful experiences for potential candidates than a list of names on a chart.

Employers often agree, but they resist providing meaningful education and experience because it consumes both time and money. Preparation means the candidate will be less productive in their current job. It means mistakes may be made and a mentor’s time may be wasted. Candidates must be carefully managed in the process, expectations kept in check and destructive internal competition kept to a minimum. The process must be managed well to avoid disappointment that could lead to the resignation of a frustrated candidate.

Employees’ initiative

Employees, you have an important opportunity in succession planning. Whether your employer is a planner or a gambler, talk with your manager about the next steps in your role and career. Bring up the concept of succession and your desire to get the right experiences to test your ability and fit. Seek out the technical education needed. Do you want a role that includes managing people? Take the soft skills training needed and seek out ways to put it to use at work or in the community.

Maybe “succession planning” is the wrong title; it is more like “capability creation.” It is unpredictable, subject to human whims and inefficient. But for key roles, it is still the best alternative to a list of names.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm, with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro, that helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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