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Succession Planning Doesn’t Have To Be Hard

With all that’s been published about sustainable succession planning you would think it would be easy to get it right. Yet, numerous surveys are available showing that while less than 50% of businesses even have a program, only 25% of those are seen by executives as really effective. Succession planning can be more valuable and successful if we carefully think about five factors that commonly undermine succession planning programs:

  1. Using the wrong name.
  2. Lack of management readiness.
  3. Inability to keep management’s attention.
  4. Too much focus on assessment (too little on development).
  5. Failure to build an integrated system.

Let’s take a look at each of these areas to develop a careful plan to launch or rebuild our succession planning efforts.

  1. Using the wrong name.
    Change ManagementFor many years we’ve called the program what it is - a plan to create an adequate supply of people ready to succeed others into critical positions. The problem is that the very word “successor” sends the wrong message to both the ones selected and those that are not. Otherwise talented replacements often behave poorly with their peers when they hear that they are an heir apparent to a specific senior level position. You just can’t keep that information quiet. Valuable individuals will feel passed over or limited in career opportunities as soon as they hear they are not one of the chosen few. Remember: there are often more high-potential candidates than positions to fill. Senior vacancies just do not open often enough to meet the desires of talented and gifted employees. Unfortunately the chance of losing key talent is increased when a program is launched to identify a narrow number of successors. “Leadership Development”, “Leadership Continuity” or “Talent Development” are viable options for program names that explain the long-term goal – developing everyone to a level where they can perform to their highest capacity.


  1. Lack of management readiness.
    Human Asset Strategies and MeasuresManagement is a system. It is a system of goals, performance management, motivation, incentives and much more. When a management team does not embrace an initiative of any type, you can usually look into these elements to discover what’s holding you back. In most organizations, management is tasked to the max. Adding any new effort will potentially create compromise somewhere else. The two basic questions HR must be able to answer to gain management’s commitment are (1) “What’s in it for me to add this to the workload I already have?” and (2) “Do you mean me any harm?” Carefully evaluating the motivators and de-motivators to a new program will allow for the support needed. A quick look into the position descriptions of most management positions often shows that succession planning is in addition to, and not part of, their original plate full of responsibilities.


  1. Inability to keep management’s attention.
    Knowledge Management & TransferSenior management pays attention to those things that measure the likelihood of success. Call them “Key Indicators” or use another descriptor – these items are known to predict success. Executives watch critical ratios like sales-per-employee, yield and operating expense, quality, EBIDTA, earnings, and many more. It is the same with most long-term successful Leadership Continuity Programs. Management develops a focus on the metrics of success in areas like time-to-fill critical jobs, number of fills internally, time-to-readiness, cost-to-fill, and others. When these measures can be linked to the strategic direction of the business, there is a reason to view the progress of the program with greater frequency and concern. Research has shown a specific list of succession and talent management metrics that seem to stand out as most critical. They include:

  • Total turnover
  • Productivity
  • Top performer retention (potential and performance)
  • Best pipelines to fill key expertise gaps
  • Time-to-fill / hire critical positions
  • Average time to hire/fill critical positions
  • Critical roles with now successors
  • Time-to-performance
  • Performance for internal fills in new position


  1. Too much focus on assessment (too little on development).
    Job Analysis and ProfilingThe purpose of a leadership or talent program is development. Who is ready? Who is not and what is being done for them? What does our bench look like? In the early stages of implementation, organizations focus on collecting data, but sometimes at the expense of keep the outcomes in mind. The purpose is to have strong people available and ready to fill all critical positions in the organization. Often the attention goes to the assessment of high-potentials and their readiness, but the value comes from the development expense and efforts that follow. When managers are not kept focused on the long-term development objective, they worry that their people will not be given the development they need tailored to their growth objectives.


  1. Failure to build an integrated system.
    Engaged EmployeeThe final pitfall will come when our efforts do not link across multiple systems. A common denominator to leadership programs is the use of competencies. Leadership competencies apply to all in management and functional competencies describe the skills, knowledge, behaviors and characteristics of success for a specific job or job family. These competencies must link to the strategic business objectives of the company. Significant time is put into identifying each critical competency. These competencies are critical to selection and hiring systems, performance management systems, development systems and even into knowledge management or retention. And while software isn’t initially a necessity, it soon will be. The amount if information about all the players involved must be stored and sorted so that it will be available at the request of any executive. When they ask “Who do we have that is ready for or on a track for X position, with a background in this specific area of responsibility?” you’ll want the answer quickly.

So, the big question is is your organization ready for succession planning? Does your program need a review to create minor changes that will improve its sustainability or value? Complete the form above to request the PLS Succession Planning Readiness Assessment and our free offer for a customized report for your company.

For more information about our services, or to learn how your organization can benefit from a partnership with PLS, please contact us via email at, or by phone at (800) 827-7576.