A Best Practice Framework for Succession Planning

By Allison McWilliams


The “Heir Apparent” Model

The idea of planning for the succession of top leadership is nothing particularly new; just think about generations of royal families and the line of succession which has been pre-determined through order of birth. All royal offspring are being groomed for that top position over the course of their lives through:

  • their education,
  • job shadowing
  • mentoring.

A version of this “heir apparent” model, has been found for years in many corporations. The company head picks his or her successor – usually someone very much like himself or herself – and grooms that person to one day run the company. On down the line there may be similarly selected successors, so that on a company flow chart every position of importance will have a name attached to it, an identified future replacement. There is never any doubt about who will be replacing whom.

There are several potential problems with this model:

  1. Sometimes the best person to replace you is not another version of you.
  2. Sometimes the heir apparent finds a better offer down the road and is not available when ou need it.

What do you do when you make a huge investment of time and money in someone and they decide to leave?

3. All the people who are not identified ofr later promotion feel devalued, and leave to find better opportunities elsewhere. Even if they stay, they lose their ambition, they stop trying to develop themselves, and they just do the
9 to 5 job until they retire. It’s not too exciting for them and it’s terrible for the organization, for the culture and work ethic, and for everyone involved.

What incentive is there for everyone else to develop and achieve when they know from the start that they have no chance of moving up?

The “Development for All” Succession Model

Succession planning models exist on a continuum, with the heir apparent model on one end of that continuum, and on the other end is the approach of development for all.

In the “development for all” model, everyone is developed equally, and everyone has an equal shot at the top slots.  No one is given preferential treatment, or singled out for higher levels of development.

However, this approach is only an ideal.

The reality of organizational structures is that there is only one slot at the top, and not everyone can or should fill it. And, there are very few slots just below the top one.  In fact, as Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman point out in their book, “First Break All the Rules”, a “career ladder” approach that rewards movement toward the top, sets up most of the people to fail. This is so because when we tell people that success is measured by how far up that ladder they move, inevitably, most of our people will not succeed.

A second issue is that this method is very, very competitive – it pits everyone against everyone else. Instead of helping the organization build more effective teams, better work flow, more sharing of knowledge and skills, a more collaborative culture and cooperation, no one wants to so those things because it lessens their own opportunity to stand out and be recognized.It’s divisive rather that positive.

Additionally, “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” is a big problem. For example, the goal of a university would never be to move everyone up a career path into some level of administration, because who will be left to teach the courses? Take care of the grounds? Clean the buildings? Teach the less desirable classes?

A way is needed to reward people at their current organizational level, as well as those who are interested in moving up.

Finding a Balanced Approach

The best approach is somewhere in between and is a combination of the “heir apparent” and the “development for all” models. This hybrid model is known as “developing bench strength”. Instead of a one-for-one replacement plan in which a person is identified and prepared for each potential position, there are several people (on the “bench”) prepared to step into any vacant position at any time. This method has sometimes been call “filling the talent pipeline”, but we think the concept of “Bench strength” better describes the reality and the distinctive differences this method offers.

One of the best examples of this model is General Electric. When Jack Welch was ready to retire, he had three people, each equally prepared, developed, and ready to take over for him. Eventually, one went to 3M, one went to Home Depot, and one was chosen to take overthe CEO spot at GE. Talk about bench strength!   And, both the organization and the people were winners! THAT’s what is distinctive about “bench strength”, everyone is a winner!

This works because succession planning this way is specific to the needs of the organization. Such planning starts by taking a strategic look at your needs now and in the future, and taking steps to address those needs. It is taking a proactive stance towards your organization’s success, today and tomorrow.

A Final Definition

So, if the best model is somewhere between “heir apparent” and “develop them all”, how do we define the hybrid, balanced approach?

“Effective management succession planning is any effort designed to ensure the continued effective performance of an organization, division, department, or work group by making provision for the development, replacement, and strategic application of key people over time.”

IMA Thanks Allison McWilliams, of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, a public service and outreach unit of the University of Georgia, whose work titled, “Mentoring for Succession:  Countering Aging Work Force Issues” was the basis for the above article.