Q: I’m in HR, and three members of our senior leadership team just announced plans to retire in the next two years. I’ve never had to plan for one succession, let alone three. What’s the process when there are no obvious candidates? What if there’s conflict around who we select? Who should be involved in this process? Help!
A: Two years may sound like a long notice for retirement, but it’s not. Most people will give a year notice in public but longer behind the scenes to allow for the kind of succession planning you’re now beginning. The challenge here is that the consistent, longer term succession planning needed is missing. You’re not alone in this situation—organizations as a whole tend not to be the best at planning for succession, and it has become a more important issue over time. Identifying key internal contributors is crucial to an organization’s success and ability to retain culture, ensure knowledge transfer, maintain stability, and not get caught unprepared for filling vital roles.
Yes, you can expect there will be conflict over who is selected as successor, and remaining focused on the needs of the role and a seamless transfer should take priority over office politics. Typically, multiple people will be vying for the role, or you may conduct an informal internal interview process to determine who is interested and what developmental areas they may need to focus on in preparation. You will also need to build the job description and interview external candidates. Looking externally is a good idea if you have not started the development of a successor, as it provides a benchmark against which to measure internal people.
The people announcing their retirement might also make recommendations on who they think would best fill their role. Having the outgoing people make recommendations can be risky, so remember that that’s all it is—a recommendation. People like to identify their heir, but if they hadn’t started grooming them for the role, there may have been cause. The senior leadership team should identify the skills needed and potential candidates for the role. They have the long-term strategic vision in mind and will most likely need to work with the successor to ensure that person’s success.
In addition to identifying the immediate successor, you should be planting the seeds for the next two levels of the succession plan. You might identify at least two people for succession—“an heir and a spare”—who both get groomed for the role. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box at this stage, either. Who are the unobvious candidates? They may not be direct reports to the exiting people; they may actually come from other parts of the organization altogether. Look cross-functionally to see where else the desired skills and competencies for the role might be present. To make the final decision among two or more potential successors, determine which one is contributing more to the success of the organization. He or she may get promoted as the first “heir,” while the other continues to learn and grow as the “spare.”
Your transition plan needs to allow enough time and overlap for critical knowledge transfer between the senior leader and the next person. It’s important for the organization to present itself with an image of security, stability, and continuity—both internally and to the public. To achieve this, you might advance one of the successors into a visible role sooner than later, so the turnover seems less sudden. Losing three members of senior leadership at once may make an outsider question what’s going on at the organization, so create an overall transition plan that lessens negative speculation about the health of the company.
The rest of the organization also needs to remain informed, though it’s fine to keep the search confidential until you’ve decided on finalists. As soon as the names are public, everyone at the company will want to let senior leadership know what they think—good or bad. People may start jumping to conclusions about the future of the organization, so some attrition may occur if they don’t like who’s ultimately chosen. Candidates who aren’t selected may also leave, which is an unfortunate but often expected outcome. Hopefully, they will choose to stay and learn from the new leader and contribute to future success.
As you probably know by now, succession planning should be an ongoing process—every year, ask who you’re at risk of losing and what you can do to ensure that appropriate high potentials are prepared. Not being caught in this situation each time someone leaves will ensure stability and success across the organization and create much less stress for you.