When you’re busy in the day-to-day workings of your business, succession planning often takes a backseat to other, more time sensitive tasks and projects. And while this is completely understandable, you need to carve out some time to think about what would happen if your key leaders and task masters suddenly weren’t there to help make these things happen.

It’s not that it never crosses your mind. Most of us have had those “Oh, sh*t!” moments when we catch ourselves imagining the worst. But let’s think about that for a second. The main reason these bone-chilling moments are so darn scary is because we don’t have a solid back up plan in place. But what if we did?

Enter Succession Planning.

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing internal talent to fill key positions when your current leaders leave, retire or die. And while that may sound a little intimidating, it’s not nearly as frightening as having to do it on the spot if and when something happens. And eventually, something will happen.

Benefits of Succession Planning

When done right, succession planning will give you peace of mind by performing several important functions:

  • Identifying employees with the skills, attitude, and desire to move into key positions should they become vacant
  • Facilitating a smooth transition if/when a key team member is unable to perform their duties or leaves unexpectedly
  • Acting as a retention tool for top performers who have been identified for professional development and potential promotion
  • Helping protect the organization from having too much invested in any one individual or personality (Founder’s Syndrome)
  • Reducing some of the trauma and panic that would normally occur in situations where change happens suddenly and potential outcomes are unknown

You can’t just plan for the best

Once upon a time, I entered into a formal contract with a business partner. At the time, we hired a lawyer who insisted that we come up with (and sign off on) a business dissolution plan— before we ever opened our doors.

Initially, we were confused and somewhat deflated by that requirement. We were super excited about the promise of our business and had no plans of dissolving it. Why should we agree to the terms of our demise before we even had a chance to get started?

And that’s when our wise advisor gently reminded us that every single relationship on this earth is temporary. If it doesn’t end by choice, it will eventually be severed by death. There’s really no way around it.

And while this may sound a bit morbid, it’s also 100% true. Even the strongest, most dedicated, and mutually beneficial relationships will eventually come to an end, either by choice or by fate.

Consult your inner worry wart, but embrace your inner strategic planner

Very few people like to sit around thinking up worst case scenarios, but in this case it’s part of the deal.

If you can’t bring yourself to use the “…hit by a bus tomorrow” or “…corporate plane crash” lines of thinking, try something more positive, like a “… won the lottery and moved to Fiji” scenario. (Remember to include a storyline where multiple people win the lottery and move to Fiji at the same time just to be safe.)

Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that any and all of your key decision makers and contributors could relinquish their duties at any moment (hopefully to go sip Mai Tais on the beach), you can start putting together plans for how to go about replacing them if and when the need arises.

How to make succession planning work

Take inventory of your current workforce

  • Who are your departmental stars and what skills to they have to offer?
  • What training could you provide to develop or cross-train internal talent?
  • Are there any staffing gaps that need to be filled currently or in the near future?
  • Create a workforce plan that addresses these needs.

Identify potential internal candidates

  • Let them know you value their potential and would like to help develop their talent.
  • Discuss career goals and upward mobility options to assess interest and enthusiasm.
  • Develop “bench strength” by creating development plans for identified candidates.
  • Look deep into the organization and pinpoint people to fill “bench” positions as needed.

Identify skills gaps

  • What skills do your current leaders have that aren’t replicable internally?
  • Which key positions will need to be filled with external candidates?
  • What qualities will you be looking for in potential replacements?
  • Make a list of any known contacts that could potentially step into these roles, considering specific positions, skills, and cultural fit.

Create a living document

Because succession planning is all about unpredictability and the unexpected, it makes sense not to get too mired in detailed processes or time lines. You’ll also want to resist making any specific promises regarding advancement.

  • Identify multiple potential candidates for each key position to allow for flexibility.
  • Recognize that certain positions will be harder to fill than others.
  • Create career development plans with your targeted succession candidates in mind.
  • Revisit your succession plan once or twice a year to see if it still makes sense.

Now go buy that lottery ticket

Planning for the unexpected is an important part of your overall business strategy.

Doing so will allow you to keep things running even in the midst of sudden or unpredictable change. You’ll also gain a better understanding of your workforce and be able to make informed decisions about how to invest in employee development. Best of all, your succession planning work will help relieve some of the fear and stress associated with the unknown.

Creating a succession plan may not be something you’re particularly looking forward to, but once you’ve got a good one in place, you’ll all be able to breathe a little easier. And you’ll have zero guilt when it’s time to move to Fiji.

Photo by AndreyPopov

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