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Nothing Succeeds Like Succession Planning

DECIDING WHO WILL OCCUPY vacant leadership positions in an organization is one of the most important functions of a company’s senior leadership team. Yet, it’s not unusual for companies to give succession planning little thought or attention until a post is vacated. That’s a dangerous approach. Instead, companies should institute an ongoing plan of succession as a part of their strategic planning.

My company calls this process selecting for leadership. It can be a useful exercise not only for top executives but also for department heads, such as security directors, who can use it to set career paths for their most capable staff members. The process consists of the following steps: define roles, identify leadership qualities, assess interest and potential, mentor, train, and promote.

Defining Roles

The process begins by determining and defining the positions that will be part of the success planning program. Executives should outline job descriptions for themselves and their leadership team. That would include department managers and group supervisors. The job descriptions should be forward-looking and take into account the strategic plan of the organization. If the company does not have a strategic plan detailing its vision for the future, executives should work to identify companywide goals before they begin writing the job descriptions.

For example, at Leading and Learning, Inc. (my company), one client had grown in five years from 300 employees to 5,000. When the company was just 300 people, building and maintaining a company culture and strategic philosophy was easy because management had daily interaction with employees at all levels of the company. Once the organization grew, however, the company found it more difficult to maintain its culture and to keep everyone focused on its vision.

To help regain the company’s momentum, the CEO and the leadership team had a series of discussions about the company’s future. As a result, the executives were able to identify a concise plan for the future. After the goals for the company were identified, job descriptions supporting those goals were developed.

Defining positions in this way is an important step in succession planning, because it gives potential candidates the opportunity to train and prepare for those future role requirements. It also helps management understand what qualifications and qualities the company should seek in candidates it might want to groom for those higher-level positions.

Identifying Leadership

In addition to defining specific skills needed for each position, the company must define what leadership qualities it seeks generally. The company can then select employees within the organization who appear to have those leadership qualities (see sidebar, page 100).

One way to find promising future leaders is to conduct an informal poll of front-line managers, asking them to identify all employees who have demonstrated the sound leadership skills that the company seeks.

Assessing Potential

Management’s next step is to assess how many of the candidates identified as having leadership qualities are truly worthy of mentoring. That can only be determined through a full-blown assessment process that includes psychological tests and interviews.

Tyson Corporation, for example, has adopted a procedure for regularly assessing its staff’s leadership potential. Candidates first take a battery of tests that are designed to determine skills and abilities on various measures related to their job duties. The company then interviews the most promising candidates and tracks their current job performance. The workers who stand out are given training for future career growth. This process is designed to aggressively recruit for new leaders by evaluating talent in current employees and grooming them for advancement.

Assessment tools can also be used to ensure that individuals are placed in positions that complement their skill sets. For example, at another client company, a new CEO had been hired and had made some adjustments to the existing leadership team, adding some employees from his prior company.

Because he was new to the company, the CEO wanted to make sure that he had placed individuals correctly. He asked Leading and Learning to conduct an assessment of all the team members using psychological tests and individual interviews.

Through this assessment, the CEO was able to understand his leadership team members and the various skill sets they brought to the table. He was also able to see various personality and leadership traits that he would not have been able to know based simply on résumé materials.

Management should talk with employees who stand out as having leadership potential, telling them that they have the opportunity to be groomed for a career path with the company. The individual must understand, however, that any promotion is contingent on successful completion of a mentoring, education, and internship phase.


Each potential future leader needs to be mentored by more experienced personnel. The mentoring process should be a formal one with specified benchmarks, educational components, and milestones. It should last between six months and one year.

The mentor takes personal responsibility for nurturing each new leadership candidate. In the process, mentors assume the role of both plotting out and monitoring their charges’ progress. Mentors should meet individually with trainees to discuss issues, set career-directed plans, and explain organizational issues. Mentors with more than one employee to oversee should hold either weekly or biweekly meetings with the entire group to discuss the process and address any concerns.

Mentors should also look for ways to expose the trainees to new experiences that will help develop their knowledge base and skills. For example, as a member of upper management, the mentor typically has the ability to influence other managers to include the trainee in events, such as conferences, to which they would typically not be invited.


The level of training needed to prepare a candidate for higher positions varies. One common objective, however, is to focus on weaknesses uncovered during the assessment period. For example, if a person is seen as lacking knowledge of business finance issues that he or she will need to progress up the ladder, those types of courses should be suggested.

In most cases, the education will consist of college courses, conferences, workshops, and other experiences applicable to the next level job. In many cases, the training will consist of one or two university courses (rather than a full degree). Regardless of the level of training needed, the mentor should be actively involved to ensure that the educational objectives are being met.

This stage represents a critical make or break moment for these potential future leaders. If they can’t gain the necessary skills to carry out higher-level work, they won’t be promotable.

During the educational phase, the company will also want to tailor the current jobs of the management trainees to further prepare them for higher-level roles. For example, each management trainee’s job can be expanded to include one or more of the tasks critical to the next level job that he or she may occupy. In this way, the on-the-job training will support and enhance the formal educational preparation.


It’s important to be able to successfully gauge the right moment when a member of the management trainee team is ready to take on higher-level responsibilities. The employee should complete all formal education and the results should be analyzed before the promotion is made.

Management should make the decision objectively, using the education and training results, rather than relying on personal loyalties and relationships that may have been formed during the mentoring stage. If an employee did not perform well during training, it should be assumed that he or she would not perform well on the job.

At this point, managers should make final decisions about who will proceed to higher positions. Assuming, for example, that the company has a cadre of 10 people in its management trainee program each year, it is unlikely that all 10 will perform well in the educational and mentoring phase. It is not unusual for two or three of the original 10 to be deemed unqualified to proceed to higher levels. Depending on why they did not make the cut, some candidates may be given advice on how to address their shortcomings and encouraged to apply to reenter the management trainee program in the future.

Once the final pool of candidates is selected, the company should arrange for a trial period, or internship, where the employee will be given many of the duties associated with the new job.


More often than not, new managers are put into positions without proper preparation for the role. The internship period is an important part of the careful process of selecting the best managers to carry forward the leadership process for the organization. This period gives the future leaders an opportunity to put their acquired knowledge and skills into play.

This step in the new managers’ preparation should not be left to chance, and must have structured, measurable learning and performance components. The trial period should last between six months and one year, depending on the company’s need and the pressure for the employees to move into the full leadership role.

Because companies are typically eager to place employees as quickly as possible, this stage is sometimes skipped. That can cause problems later.

Executives should understand that while an employee may have performed well in assessments and in educational preparation, he or she may perform differently when placed in the job. In one of our client companies, an employee had performed very well in all assessments prior to being promoted. When that person was placed in the management position, however, it was quickly discovered that he did not work well with other employees and more training would be necessary before the employee could continue in the higher-level job.

During the internship phase, it is important to encourage seasoned managers to continue to mentor the neophytes. In addition, for the first year the new managers should be subject to a formal performance assessment every three months. These reviews and subsequent discussions provide an opportunity to correct behaviors before they become chronic or serious problems.

Assessment of managers should be an ongoing process even after the management interns have performed satisfactorily and have ascended to their new positions. That will help the company to ensure that its fledgling leaders continue to develop along the right leadership path.

Training tomorrow’s leaders today is the best way for a company or a department to ensure long-term success.

Billie G. Blair, Ph.D., is an organizational psychologist and owner of the management consulting firm Leading and Learning, Inc.