Smart Succession Planning… It’s for far more than your Top Jobs!

Succession plans are utterly critical to business success. They are indeed different by person.  The higher potential person needs significant challenge to be motivated, grow and become a future leader.  The mid level person, perhaps content in their role without career promotion, needs to have job enrichment activities to further engage them in their existing role.

An author I recently read likens a company with a solid succession plan to a successful sports team (Hill, 2012).  I really love this analogy.  You see, the team (or company) can remain a top tier team (or company) because of the systems and structure and training in place.  Players (or employees) come and go. So, if a company has a solid succession and training plan in place, they can rest assured that even as employees come and go, they will remain solid and performance strong.

A very practical methodology to place high and even mid performers in the right path and  plan is to start with the discipline of the nine-box grid (Noe, 2013, p. 400-402). Here one can identify who all the players are and where they fit organizationally. If you are not familiar with this nine box concept, it is essentially a set of boxes laid out like a graph.  On one axis is the performance output of the person. On the other axis is their potential.  So, in the bottom left you have a person with little ability and little interest in performing; in other words a person to weed out.  In the top right is the opposite–your superstar.  However, the notion is that a company is a blend.  Yes you must weed out the ill performing.  Yes you need to promote, retain and focus on the top stars.  But what about the rest?  You see, the “middle of the road” is in fact the heart and soul of the core business.  We need to have a plan for those jobs same as the more critical high level ones. Without this a company cannot stay market strong, agile and able to flex and move as retention ebbs and flows.

Now let’s dive a little deeper into the idea of creating a succession plan for all roles; again the activity that lets a company be an A-player team.  Succession planning is stereotypically seen as a way to fill key roles.  The reality, however, is that all people are replaceable and when that retirement hits, promotion comes, etc, the company needs to be agile and ready to act.  The idea extended further is that while the company can recruit from the outside, it’s better to have the knowledge on the inside from the get go to avoid the toil of bringing in new employees and getting them up to speed.

Here is a proposed method to develop the varying levels.  To keep this simple I’ve proposed three layers here:  the mid performance track, the high performance track and the leadership track. The plans will be unique to the type of role, but in the end the totality of them all is what keeps that company strong and prepared for turnover and change.  The degree of weight placed on individual learning opportunities will simply depend on the need of the individuals in each of these plans.

The Mid Performance Track. The mid performance track employees are the core.  They need to be developed to take on lateral moves when others leave.  And, they need to have succession plans in place to back fill their jobs when they leave.  So, the approach here is more of a cross training approach.  An example of this might be a factory environment with various pieces of equipment. One worker runs one piece of machinery, while another is trained in a slightly different piece of machinery operation.  Yet another worker assembles while another boxes and ships.  Left in their individual silos, the company is weak.  However, it’s entirely possible to cross train and flex workers so as to enhance the skill set.  And the same can be applied to an office environment.  Office workers can be trained in multiple software programs, different aspects of customer service and administrative work, and so forth. This not only helps build bench strength for the time a person retires/leaves, but it also helps build interest and respect for fellow workers, and it breaks the monotony of one task all the time.  Point being, for the core jobs that are held by workers who are content there for the long haul, simply focus on cross training and skill broadening.  And, lastly, be sure to be bringing in the new and current technological and other training to remain agile.

The High Performance Track (could be more technical/not leadership management. These are the employees who are technically highly skilled but won’t become managers.  For example, engineers or accountants.  The same approach as listed in the mid performance section above applies in terms of cross training to create job enrichment and the ability for employees to cover when a person leaves.  However, this group possesses more complex and critical skills.  For example, a high performing engineer may be a critical contributor to patents for the company.  If he/she leaves the company will suffer great loss.  As such, there need to be more rich and in depth coach and shadowing partnerships to cross train. There should also be investment in outside curriculum.  This might be patent writing classes for engineers, accounting continuing ed for accountants, PHR classes for HR generalists, and so forth.  Finally, there needs to be compensation to reward the employees for their extra strides.  So, on the whole, more time, care, attention and money will be paid to this group than the mid performers.

The Leadership Track. This group of employees are your current and future leaders.  They require everything listed above to develop a strong core of skills. However, they need special mentoring, coaching and leadership development to boot.  The most money will likely go into this group.  Every high performer on this track should have a job coach (likely an outside consultant) and a formal development plan.  The plan should be a partnership where the employee owns his/her development and actions/commitments, but the company also commits.  There should be special projects assigned to grow the leadership and management skills.  There should be entry level management opportunities to pave the way.  This might start with project management.  Then perhaps intern management. And, in time, these employees should be given staff in small to greater quantities.  They should be very involved in directly shadowing key executives at the top level to learn from them as well.  These are internally mentors.  And, there are many outside seminars and leadership institutes to also get involved with. Last but not least, compensation is key.  The company needs to reward this group well so as to not lose them to outside competition after all the investment.

Hopefully the above gives you a small sampling of the ways to blend and deviate paths to tailor as role appropriate.  Every person needs to be touched here.  Let me repeat.  No company can thrive if they are not planning to develop and have succession paths for every role.  That is because strength lies in numbers, in the totality, and in the whole team.


Noe, Raymond. (2013). Employee Training and Development. New York,

         NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Hill, Scott. (2012). Creating a Dynasty. Grant Rapids Business Journal.

          Vol. 30 Issue 31, p11-11


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