Career succession planning to build a talent pipeline

Career succession planning prepares a company to fill critical roles, temporarily or permanently, within an organization to avoid disrupting day-to-day operations. By preparing for employee churn, companies can improve employee retention, morale, and motivation, and ensure organizational success.
Employee accepting a career succession promotion and high fiving leader

Career succession planning is crucial to ensure the long-term success of any business, but it’s particularly important for small businesses, which employ nearly 50% of America’s workforce, operate with limited resources, and rely heavily on key personnel.

Losing a key employee can be devastating for a small business, and a well-planned career succession strategy can ensure a smooth transition of responsibility, maintain the company’s momentum, and, ultimately, increase the chances of long-term success. 

To effectively plan career succession, small businesses can and should borrow from the playbook of bigger businesses. In fact, the Teamshares network model was designed to bring the resources of larger businesses to small businesses.

To do this, we recruit people-oriented leaders from a wide range of backgrounds, including larger enterprises. Many of the 65+ current Teamshares network company presidents come from enterprise leadership positions, and they provide valuable perspectives on effective hiring strategies for enduring small businesses.

What is career succession planning?

Career succession planning prepares a company to fill critical roles without disrupting day-to-day operations to ensure continued business growth and continuity.

Enterprise leaders typically create a career succession plan to ensure a smooth transition when they retire or leave an organization. However, finding a successor isn’t limited to enterprise-level leaders. 

By leveraging the same career succession planning strategies as their enterprise counterparts, small businesses can better prepare for inevitable churn in key positions. 

There are two distinct types of succession planning: proactive and reactive. 

Proactive small business succession planning aims to identify key positions and responsibilities before those positions are vacant. Reactive career succession planning happens when an employee exits and there is no predetermined plan for filling their role.

Change your job. Change your life.

To minimize the emotional and practical impact of unplanned attrition, all leaders should engage in career succession planning for roles critical to business success.

Without it, leaders risk losing time and hiring a successor who isn’t a long-term match for the role.

Benefits of succession plans for employees

Proactive career succession planning helps companies retain top talent, improve employee morale and motivation, and ensure organizational success.

By preparing for inevitable employee churn, companies are better equipped to fill key positions with the most qualified candidates.

The benefits of pre-determined succession plans include:

  • New perspectives in leadership and a talented, diverse workforce.
  • No loss in critical knowledge.
  • Consistent day-to-day operations.
  • Improved employee retention and engagement through clear career growth plans.
  • Ability to hire the most qualified candidate for the position.

When internal career pipelines are clearly defined, organizational leaders can easily identify gaps and prepare their external hiring processes accordingly.

How to create a management succession plan

A comprehensive career succession strategy should identify key roles at the company, the respective risk of losing each employee, a promising talent pipeline, and a clear onboarding plan for its successor.

Use a career succession template to lessen the time and resources needed to find, recruit, and train successors.

Step 1: Identify the critical roles

Leaders must understand the risk associated with key positions to prioritize career succession planning effectively.

To begin, leaders should write a list of all positions without a clear successor.

Next, they should identify the impact of that role on day-to-day operations and the risk of turnover.

Finally, they should analyze internal employees and their respective readiness levels to assume the role, and the level of training required to fulfill the position’s responsibilities.

Use the following model to assess critical positions in a management succession plan:

ImpactDescribe the level of risk to day-to-day operations without the role:
  • High risk (operations or morale can't function without the role)
  • Medium risk (operations or morale will be slightly impacted by the role)
  • Low risk (there will be little impact to operations or morale)
  • Turnover riskDescribe the level of risk for churn:
  • High risk (within 1 year)
  • Medium risk (1+ years)
  • Low risk (upon retirement)
  • Talent pipelineIdentify the number of internal candidates in the pipeline along with their readiness to take on the role:
  • Doña Rosa, 5/5 readiness
  • Juan Perez, 4/5 readiness
  • Onboarding levelDescribe the knowledge level the successor must have:
  • must hit the ground running
  • short training period
  • medium training period
  • standard training period
  • By analyzing each position, the risk its vacancy would pose to day-to-day operations, and the readiness of existing employees to fill the role, executives can build better talent pipelines to prepare for both expected and unexpected turnover.

    Step 2: Record essential role responsibilities

    To source, vet, and recruit a qualified successor to fill an open role, leaders must have a clear understanding of the responsibilities within that role.

    But it can be difficult for busy leaders with seemingly endless to-do lists to create a comprehensive list of responsibilities. Start by asking high-level questions to identify the role’s most important responsibilities:

    • What does this role do in a typical year? Is seasonality a factor?
    • What does this role do semi-annually? Quarterly?
    • What does this role do in a typical week?
    • What responsibilities or knowledge are exclusive to this role?
    • What will be the hardest thing for the next person in this role to learn?
    • What would the next person in the role be most surprised to hear about its day-to-day operations?
    • What duties can be delegated to existing employees? (keep in mind additional responsibilities should also align with compensation)

    Next, clearly define the tasks performed within the role, their frequency, and how success is measured for each.

    • Action: (example: team scheduling)
    • Category: (example: team management)
    • Frequency: (example: weekly)
    • Activity description: (example: prepare for weekly meeting with schedule requests, send out agenda, host the meeting with location managers)
    • Key performance indicators: (example: percentage of schedule completeness)

    In addition to specific day-to-day responsibilities, leaders should define the competencies and soft skills required to be successful in the role.

    For example, one position may require analytical skills to build a sales strategy around seasonality while another may require more empathetic leadership skills to build trust with long-term employees.

    Step 3: Create a talent pipeline

    Often, it’s better for leaders to promote internally instead of recruiting externally, as it reduces the time required to onboard the successor to their new position.

    To create a talent pipeline for key roles, start by building a list of potential employees who could fill the vacancy based on their desired goals, the current overlap of responsibilities, past performance, and alignment with organizational values.

    Take note when an employee demonstrates progression in their problem-solving skills, as it can indicate a strong capacity for leadership:

    1. Phase 1: An employee sees a problem and does nothing.
    2. Phase 2: An employee sees a problem and comes to you expecting you’ll solve the problem.
    3. Phase 3: An employee sees a problem and comes to you with context and a recommended solution.

    Once a leader has identified potential successors for a role, they must then invest in their development through training, mentoring, and other career advancement opportunities.

    Start by holding one-on-one meetings to understand the employee’s goals, openly provide feedback, and discuss areas for growth. One-on-one meetings not only help leaders identify employees for future promotions but also facilitate growth discussions that encourage employees to stay at companies longer and therefore reduce churn and the need to find a successor.

    If no existing employees can take over a key role, either because they prefer their current position over management or simply because they need more development, it’s time to start engaging external candidates.

    Leaders must recognize their existing responsibilities when engaging external candidates for career succession. Consider options to streamline the external hiring process to lessen the bandwidth needed for the task such as:

    • Polling industry and geographically-similar peers for advice or references
    • Engaging a recruiter specialized in hiring for the role

    When embarking on this process, consider the time it will take to onboard the individual not only into the defined responsibilities but also into the company culture and values.

    Step 4: Build a plan to onboard the successor

    Onboarding an employee to take over a position involves deliberate and comprehensive training.

    If promoting an internal employee, career succession onboarding can begin prior to their official start in the role.

    Communicate the transition timeline to the employee, and define benchmarks they can work toward that bridge both roles—including low-risk responsibilities they will eventually own in their new role.

    Once the successor is aware of and agrees with the transition timeline, consider a thoughtful approach to share the news with other employees. With effective communication, leaders will:

    • Lay the groundwork for how day-to-day responsibilities will change.
    • Inspire other employees looking to grow.
    • Help build a more robust internal pipeline for career succession.

    Leaders should plan for robust onboarding to ensure long-term success. Each new employee should have mentorship meetings with informal conversations to build a relationship and trust with their new leader along with performance check-ins to ensure they receive consistent, proactive feedback.

    If the successor is external, provide them with an overview of the company mission, values, and culture, once they officially begin.

    Next, review the essential role responsibilities defined in step two and build a timeline for taking over each task. If available, connect the employee with a mentor who can provide additional training and support.

    Leaders should establish clear expectations and key performance indicators for the new employee, as well as regular check-ins and feedback to ensure that they are meeting those expectations.

    By taking a structured approach to onboarding and measuring success, companies can ensure that employee transitions don’t interrupt operations.

    Whether you’re an enterprise leader looking for a mission-driven job opportunity or a small business president replacing a key employee, proactive career succession planning can alleviate stress, ensure operational excellence despite planned and unplanned employee attrition, and provide improved employee retention and engagement.

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