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How to ensure succession planning is planned successfully

Can you fill my shoes?

Do you have a succession plan for your role? What will happen when it’s time for you to move on? How will you ensure the best and brightest in your team are ready to step up?

All too often, succession is only considered at the moment of a manager’s departure. Leaving everybody floundering. Resulting in a lack of continuity, disrupted activity and a distracted team.

But as a good, conscientious manager, wouldn’t you want a smooth transfer of power? Whereby performance is maintained, disruption minimised and your legacy secured?

Unless your organisation has a structured succession plan already in place, it’s up to you as manager to lay out the pathway for someone to step into your shoes.

Here’s how.

In my opinion, succession planning should form part of every manager’s role. It is, after all, their responsibility to guide the direction of their team, to support the team to achieve the organisation’s goals. Knowing what will happen after they’ve moved on, is surely part of the same responsibility, a continuation of that duty beyond their own tenure.

Often, though, the future is the furthest thing from anybody’s minds. Everyone’s focused on the task in hand, this quarter’s targets, this year’s growth plans.

But, unless you want to stay in your role forever, don’t care what happens once you’ve moved on or are happy to see things fall apart upon your departure, you need to lay the groundwork now for your successor.

Here are the five key steps to successful succession planning:

1. Encourage the talent in your team

Insecure managers view a talented team member as a threat. They worry that she will show them up, expose their failings, muscle them out of their position. So they try to trip her up or stifle her progression. Rather than helping her step up, they take steps to keep her down.

Good managers are confident enough in their own abilities to not feel threatened by someone else’s. They know that they don’t have to be the best at everything and that talent is a win for their team and a win for the organisation. They look to encourage their talented people to grow and develop. They determine ways to help them build the capabilities they’ll need to take over when the time comes.

One of the biggest frustrations to successful succession planning is a manager who doesn’t give their team members room to grow.

2. Identify the motivations of the people who work for you

Do you know what makes your employees tick? What are their goals? Do you know what they’re looking for in the future? Are they interested in managing people or do they want to develop their technical skills?

Succession planning’s impossible if you don’t know whether people want to follow in your footsteps.

Explore with your team members what they’re looking to achieve in the future. Be aware though that this is only possible if you’ve already built a good relationship with them. That they feel able to express their true career desires to you, rather than telling you what they think you want to hear.

Manage the conversation sensitively. By opening the door on this promotional opportunity, you might give the impression they’re ready to walk through it now. In fact, it could be quite a way off – both in terms of their capability and your readiness to move on! They need to recognise they’ll have to meet agreed standards in terms of skills and experience, that they’ll have to put some work in to develop those skills and gain that experience – and that they still have a day job to deliver.

3. Identify development gaps

You may have people in your team who would be interested in moving into your role at some point, but it’s likely they don’t yet have the skills to do so.

Do you know – do they know – what they need to develop in order to step up when the time comes? You’ll need to support them to build their own self-awareness of what they need to develop.

It can help to get external help with this. Psychometric testing, for instance, enables people to get a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. It also ensures that talent spotting is based on evidence, not because the prospective protégé is a mirror image of the current manager.

An objective third party can also help with that potentially awkward conversation around the skills gap. It’s not uncommon for me to take part in a 3-way conversation with a staff member and manager about potential, capability and development plans.

4. Invest time in people’s development

You and your potential successor may have identified a clear development gap, perhaps the rather fundamental issue that they’ve not managed people before. But if line management is not part of their current responsibilities, how do you help them develop that skill, gain that experience?

What opportunities are available for them to develop their capabilities?

Perhaps they could step up to look after the team while you’re on holiday, for instance. Or could you give them stretch projects? Could you divvy up managerial responsibilities between you?

A key part of your role will be to support and encourage them. Even if they make mistakes. This can be really tough when you know how things should be done. But this is all about building their self-confidence. And giving them the space to learn and reflect on their mistakes, rather than become fearful of making them.

Clearly this will involve a significant investment of time and energy, not just from your protégé but from you too. That’s why it’s so important to first identify whether someone’s actually interested in moving up – not just assuming they are because they’ve been there the longest!

5. Understand everyone’s long term career goals

It’s not enough to be having these conversations about development with those you’ve identified as potential successors. You need to be having long term career plan conversations with everyone in your team.

Just because they’re not right for – or don’t want – your position, you might be able to help them get ready for a more senior role elsewhere in the organisation. Meaning that you keep talent within your business, rather than losing it to the competition.

Regular appraisals with everyone on your team are invaluable as a way of ensuring conversations happen that go beyond day to day delivery and start looking at the future. A development centre can be a good way to identify talent and potential within a whole team or department or level in the organisation, with everyone on a level playing field.

Some organisations use a 9 box rating system which indicates where an employee is on a development path in terms of their capability and motivation. The use of more advanced scoring criteria helps you to spot when someone is ready to move on, in an objective, evidenced based way.

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You may not what to think about this now, but one day – I guarantee – you will want to move on. Putting a succession plan in place for that day will ensure you can do so confident that the team you leave behind will continue to thrive.

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