BY ART VAN BODEGRAVEN AND
KENNETH B. ACKERMAN
planning for a successful succession
WHETHER YOU’RE A CEO, A LINE SUPERVISOR,
or somewhere in between, succession planning should
be somewhere near your front burner. But chances are,
you haven’t given it much thought. If so, you’re not
alone. The plain fact is that while everybody understands the importance of succession planning, all too
often, we just don’t do it.
As for what’s holding us back, it’s partly our collective optimism. Confidence in the future is deeply
ingrained in our culture—and Americans in particular
behave as if death were optional.
Then there’s the widely held misperception that succession planning is only for the Wal-Marts and
General Motors of the world. That’s simply not true.
Businesses both large and small have been crippled by
the consequences of neglecting this important matter.
In fact, a shallow management pool is a primary cause
of small business failure.
We can’t stress it enough: This is a pervasive need for
every entity of every size—for all organizations, and at
all organizational levels. It’s critical for operating
departments, for supply chain functions within companies, for small family companies, for not-for-profits,
for schools, even for governments. Legend has it that
when billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg
took office as New York’s mayor, he toured city operations and asked managers who their replacements
were. Those who couldn’t answer—nearly all—were
given 60 days to fill in the blank, with, perhaps, a hint
that a replacement could be found if there weren’t a
satisfactory response at the next review. Hizzoner wasn’t trifling with the issue, and neither should you.
What is it, really?
Succession planning is the development of a documented program to provide timely replacements for
all key resources in an organization. Those key
resources might be executives, managers, sales and
marketing rainmakers, R&D geniuses, technocrats,
communicators, or any other vital cog in the complex
machinery of organizational success.
The program should include mechanisms for elevat-
ing the capabilities of internal resources, as well as for
recruiting mission-critical talent from the outside. It
should also include protection for personal and cor-
porate assets during a succession transition period.
The basic process
As for the process, it’s really as simple as one-two-three. Here are the steps:
1. Identify potential successors—at all levels, in all
functions. Who is capable of moving up? How soon? Is
added development needed? Will you need to look
outside? Where? How much would outsiders cost?
2. Document plans and decisions (see above).
3. Plan for contingencies of every type and every
level of severity, whatever their probability. This is no
different from—actually it is very similar to—the level
of planning that goes into building resilient supply
One caveat: Don’t let HR drive this bus. They’ll have
strong proclivities for turning the process into a comprehensive corporate-wide exercise, with forms, surveys, matrices, penalties for late submissions, and little
genuine regard for the operational realities of who will
steer the ship when the captain has a heart attack.