Elements of Best Practice Succession Planning

By Barry Sweeny, 2010


A Best Practice Definition

The best model is somewhere between the “heir apparent” and “develop them all” methods for succession planning. If you want to read about these models and what their benefits and their limitations are, Click Here.)    We define the best model as follows.

“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.”

Essentially, to implement this definition, we must answer:

  • What do we have?
  • What do we need?
  • What are we going to do about it?

Guiding Principles for Succession Planning Programs:

While most of these principles are discussed in detail later in the article, they are provided here as well to frame your consideration of this topic.

  1. Plan BIG – a best practice response, but start small. The best way is to build parts that fit the master plan, but which are feasible and for which you have the capacity to implement them at a quality level. Then, increase your successes and experience as you refine and implement, working toward the full succession program envisioned in your planning.
  2. Then, gradually document and build on those successes to meet anticipated needs.
  3. Know WHY You’re Doing It – Set goals for the succession program based on meeting identified organizational and people development needs
  4. Keep clear about the distinction between Succession vs SELECTION
  5. Chose, develop, or modify a Succession Program Process Model that makes sense for you.
  6. Use the model to plan and evaluate your program progress toward full implementation, the growth of the people and your “bench strength”, and of goal attainment. Use what you learn to improve the model and make it your own.

The Guiding Questions and Process for Gaining Support for a Succession Plan

The starting point for the following model was the “Star” Succession Model which was developed by William Rothwell**, Professor at Pennsylvania State University. Barry Sweeny has refined that basic model and added a few more items that were drawn from experience working in this field.

  • What is the reality which we must address?
    • Assess the number of employees for each function.
    • Determine the age of each employee and calculate their potential retirement window.
      • Calculate earliest year (eligible), probable year, and later year
        for their retirement
    • Calculate the number of potential retirements for each year for the next 10-15 years (“Yearly Possible Range”)
    • See if HR / Personnel can provide the number of individuals who have retired each of the recent years (“Past”)
    • Based on past trends and future possible, predict the number (a range) of employees for each general category who could retire during each year for the next 10-15 years.
    • Create a graph showing this as a pattern across the years (“Expected Attrition”).
    • Discuss organizational long-term plans which are likely to impact growth and hiring. Create a graph for showing the number of employees for each major category that these plans will necessitate. (“Potential Needs”)
    • Create a version of the “Expected” graph combined with the pattern for “Potential Needs” (“Attrition Vs Needs”). This comparison will tell you the major times of concern for which you must prepare a planned response.
  • Develop and present to top level decision makers a business case with:
    • Potential costs of replacing the people needed for each category.by recruiting, hiring, and developing people from outside the company.
    • Potential costs for a mentoring and succession program to replace people needed by developing internal “bench strength”
    • A comparison of external replacement costs with the costs of growing internally, and the cost-savings to be derived.
    • A listing of non financial costs of having to replace by hiring externally (individual and team productivity, supervision time, etc.)
    • A rationale for a mentoring and succession plan to cost-effectively deliver the needed response.
    • A Best Practice Framework for Succession Planning
    • A Recommended Response Plan – Draft of an budget for the following

It’s Time to Get Started

The Succession Plan – This is a plan to grow the internal people needed for an adequate response to the needs. Yes, it is complex and has many steps to develop and implement. Our research and expert experience show that these are appropriate, necessary, and a powerful means to move the performance of your people and organization to a high level, and to sustain their and your organization’s long-term success.

Here is how to make these great things happen but keep it a feasible process.


That means to use the following process to PLAN what is the best practice response to your needs, and then start with a pilot program to implement, assess, and refine the program elements, as they are ready and you are capable of doing them well.

Then as you build experience and successes, apply that learning to improving the system, and grow the number of persons who are participants.


If you have done your homework and know your future needs, what is at-risk for your organization, and have completed the business case for the best response, it’s time to do the actual succession plan. Your needs may be startling and pressing, but only a best practice solution will adequately address those needs.

Remember, what follows is the master plan, the big design, for which you start to develop some small pieces, pilot, and then gradually implement them. It is the program toward which you want to head, not what you can or should do tomorrow.

  1. A Communications Plan to educate employee about the needs, response planned,
    role of each person (self-assessment, career goals, and action planning), time line for each step, and support to be provided for each of these steps.
  2. A Supervision Plan defining the role of supervisors in monitoring and supporting
    the above steps.
  3. A “Grow Our Own” Training Plan defining the group level responses to training needs once individual assessment, goals, and plans are submitted.
  4. External Hiring and Orientation Plan – How people who must be hired from the outside (not internally available) will be oriented and inducted into the organization by assessing their needs and then developing them through a planned training sequence and either guiding or mentoring.
  5. A New Employee Training Plan defining a curriculum for each of the following two groups:
    1. New inexperienced employee training – what these people must know and be able to do based on research on new employee needs, experiences with this group, and organizational needs and plans about which they will need familiarity and skills. This group should work with their mentor to complete an individual Career Development Plans by the end of their first year with the organization.
    2. New but experienced employee training – the options the organization will provide for this group, based on their choices and guided by their
      individual Career Development Plan which they will work with their Guide to complete by the end of their third month with the organization.
  6. A Career Development Plan
    1. The template each employee will work with their Guide, Mentor, or Supervisor to complete for:
      1. Individual self-assessment of existing knowledge and skills versus current job requirements;
      2. Current Job Goals – short-term goals and plan to address gaps in their knowledge and skills for their current job.
      3. Career Goals – long-range career aspirations and how they will develop themselves to reach their aspirations.
    2. The way the organization will collect and plan based on the above completed information;
    3. The response of the organization to the data and plans describes just above, using the other described elements;
    4. The plan and time lines for employee and organizational monitoring,
      revision of plans, and adjusted responses.
  7. Guiding and Mentoring Plan – This is the plan for how current top performers and leaders in each job category will support the development and success of external hires and internal, growing staff through the above steps.
    1. Guide Program – Guides are like “mini-mentors” who work with
      previously experienced new hires to orient them and guide them through all the assessment, and planning for the above appropriate steps. These persons generally have considerable applicable knowledge and skills for their work and typically only need minimal support and guidance. The guiding process that complements supervisors’ work, and which is expected to conclude at the end of the first year of employment.
    2. Mentor Program – The goal of this program is to pass on the knowledge,
      skills, and wisdom of more senior staff and leaders before they are gone
      and their insights from personal career development. There are two kind
      os mentors:

      1. Induction Mentors provide the more intensive support and guidance needed by less or inexperienced persons as they join, are oriented, trained, and proceed through the initial self-assessment goal setting and career planning steps. Induction mentors ensure that all organizational Induction programs and individual learning and planning are integrated,
        make sense as a whole, are supported, and are implemented into daily practice. Induction Mentoring typically lasts two years and ends when the protege demonstrates the ability to function as a self-responsible and directed employee (as determined by the mentor and supervisor).
      2. Professional and Career Development Mentors work with existing employees to support and guide them through the self-assessment and career planning processes, and supporting them as they implement these plans. Such mentoring includes coaching for improved performance in current jobs, choosing and implementing learning from training, and gaining the knowledge, experience, and skills needed for career intentions.
  8. A Job Rotation Plan – The plan to give employees the learning and experience needed for intended career goals and to develop the people with the talent and experience needed for future leadership position needs. This plan is implemented
    as positions become open and persons are fully prepared to assume them.

Reference **
– Rothwell, W.J. (2001). Effective Succession Planning, 2nd ed. NY; AMACOM, P. 75-76.