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Own the Future: How HR Can Add Value to the Succession Planning Process

The HR leader for one of Amazon Web Services’ divisions highlights how CHROs can influence leaders to prioritize succession planning.

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When I spoke to an audience of senior HR leaders last fall, I asked them this question: “How many of you are in a role that was created for you through a succession plan?” While I know that succession planning is an “out of sight, out of mind” topic at many organizations, I expected to see at least several raised hands. The actual result: Only one hand was raised, in an audience of approximately 300 senior HR leaders.

This was a clear message that more work needs to be done to prioritize building and supporting upward mobility within organizations, especially within the HR function.

It’s estimated that about 10,000 Baby Boomers are now retiring each day in the U.S. Yet somehow, data suggests that succession planning still isn’t on the radar for more than half of U.S. organizations. According to a SHRM survey, 56 percent of HR professionals said their organization didn’t have a succession plan in place. Only 21 percent reported having a formal plan, while 24 percent said their organization had an informal plan. The main reason for the apathy was a lack of time and resources to create the plan.

Leadership transitions can happen quickly. Therefore, having a successor in mind for senior and critical roles is imperative to business success. HR leaders know the importance of recognizing that every employee is a whole being and has the potential to be great. Just the same, we often face the challenge of influencing other leaders to think the same way—and to have them focus on developing future leaders in the organization.

A deliberate approach to identify and develop future leaders has been proven to help preserve an organization’s continuity and secure its future. However, many company leaders still need convincing to spend the time needed to prioritize succession planning. This is a challenge that HR leaders can overcome by knowing and addressing the most common barriers to succession planning and common mistakes in the process.

One initial mistake to avoid is combining both your succession plan and your business continuity plan. While the latter is important, combining those conversations—or combining both plans—could result in either one (or both) of them failing to gain the support and attention needed to be effective. Another challenge is the possible lack of enthusiasm that HR leaders are faced with, due to succession planning being a topic that is not always welcomed by other leaders.

Though there are clear challenges and the potential for the succession planning process to be a lengthy one, it is a key part of business functionality, and there are proven ways that HR leaders can have a meaningful and measurable impact.

HR leaders should first conduct research (internally or externally) and use metrics to tell the story of how succession planning has benefited organizations. Second, a key way to gain succession planning buy-in from your executive team is to ensure your plan is developed specifically for and aligned with the organization. Finally, it is imperative that HR leaders identify successors to ensure that other leaders can visualize the plan coming to life and provide feedback on the current bench strength in the organization.


Succession Planning: How to Overcome Objections from Leaders and Managers

As vital as succession planning is to an organization, some of your leaders may not see it as a high priority. It’s important to understand why some leaders don’t embrace succession planning. Here are some of the main reasons for leaders’ resistance and ways to get past that pushback:

They’re reluctant to leave the organization and want to control their legacy. Some leaders are not ready to let go of what they’ve built or the role they’ve come to love. They have put their stamp on the organization, and giving up control is hard to imagine. They may believe they are the only ones capable of maintaining the success that’s been achieved so far.

The solution: Include leaders in the succession plan as key mentors. This will help alleviate some of these concerns and give leaders more input and control over the succession.

They’re preoccupied with day-to-day business priorities. For many business leaders, the demands of daily responsibilities can be all-consuming. Even if they understand on an academic level the need for succession planning, they have a difficult time slowing down long enough to take action.

The solution: HR can take the lead in charting the timeline, time commitment and support for leaders to help with this process. This will help leaders recognize that they aren’t handling it alone.

They’re concerned the transition will be immediate. Leaders may assume that the succession conversation is being held with an exit date already in mind. When an HR leader approaches a leader about succession planning, what they may be hearing is, “We want you out!”

The solution: Share the fact that most succession plans take years to come to life and that most next-level leaders need significant mentorship and exposure to be ready for more-senior roles.

They’re concerned about bench strength and how to fill the skills gap. Leaders may also recognize that they’ve failed to prioritize development of the next generation of leaders and are unsure how to get successors ready.

The solution: Share performance and potential data for the extended leadership team, and also share the profiles of external leaders that have the necessary skills for senior roles. Highlight the internal resources available to address skills gaps of internal and external talent.

Note: Many leaders are afraid to develop someone and then have them leave. However, when employees recognize that their personal career path is important to their leader and they can see a track to success in the organization, they tend to stay longer, feel more committed and are a little bit more afraid to leave because they don’t know what the future holds elsewhere.  – P.P. 

“Why companies just say no” infographic


Generate Buy-In with Data and Storytelling               

I still remember the first time I needed to influence a board that a succession plan was needed for a CFO, who we knew would be transitioning within two years. While it was such a necessary process, I was surprised by the pushback and lack of interest from the board. The board believed two years was a long time and that “the team” could pick up the slack if there was a gap in CFO coverage once the current leader moved on and before their replacement was named.

I quickly realized that I needed data to help make the case for why a succession plan was necessary and how, through that plan, we could either identify an internal successor or determine the profile needed to attract external candidates.

Through my HR network, I collected data on succession plan success stories, as well as data on the lack of succession planning conversations. The data had to capture the attention of the leaders I needed to influence. This data included industry trends on retention, leadership tenure and the impact on business metrics when leadership transitions take place. I also was able to point to advice from my bookshelf. Jack Welch’s book Winning includes a relevant and detailed succession planning strategy that can help build buy-in.

I also highlighted for the executive team examples within our own company of situations in which employee satisfaction and business results took a hit when a leadership transition resulted in a key role being left unfilled for a long time.

The important part is the blend. When you have both external and internal data to add to storytelling, that really helps generate buy-in with leaders.

Align with Your Business Plan

Part of the process of ensuring that a succession plan conversation is well received is having a plan that is designed specifically for the organization and aligned with its business plan.

When should you propose a new or updated succession plan? I’ve found that the best time is right after an organization has paused to review and adjust its business plan. This timing allows HR leaders to include business concerns and make succession recommendations based on the company’s future business plans. Including these relevant and recent points will help the leadership team appreciate the relevance of the plan as created.

The best succession plans include a clear assessment of the capabilities of the current leadership team and how they have been performing over the past two years. They also include publicly available data for similar leaders in other organizations (in the same or similar industries).

To ensure the succession planning conversation is a smooth one, it’s important to highlight the key roles of the positions. This is an opportunity to ensure the successor of a leader is identified as having the skills needed to fill the current role. It also allows you to pinpoint any areas in which the current leader could be performing at a higher level. For that reason, it’s crucial to gather performance data for the leader who is being succeeded.

Remember, succession planning is not a one-size-fits-all process. Reviewing external case studies and data on how other organizations have been able to seamlessly transition leadership capabilities is a good starting point. But resist the urge to copy and paste any other succession plan. Your plan will be hard to own and embrace if it’s not tailored to your organization’s specific needs.

Succession planning is not a one-size-fits-all process. ... Resist the urge to copy and paste any other plan. Your plan will be hard to own and embrace if it’s not tailored to your organization’s specific needs."

Build Support by Pinpointing ROI

HR leaders gain the most support for their succession plans when they’re able to identify a specific return on investment for their efforts. This can be done by showing ways the HR processes are built to support succession and by highlighting internal and external succession plan success stories (and horror stories).  

In addition, the performance management process should be designed to capture data that helps identify future leaders based on their current and past performance—and their potential. An extension of the performance management plan should then outline the resources available to develop leaders and bridge any leadership skills gaps.

HR leaders should drive the succession planning process and ensure that it is free of bias. Every opportunity that HR has to call out bias, it should.

HR should also lead a deliberate conversation about diversity in the planning process and discuss ways the organization can be more diverse at its most senior levels, even if that means focusing on external candidates or developing leaders below the extended leadership team in a longer-term process. If you often promote from within, take a look at the future leaders in your organization. If your bench is not diverse, you will likely not be improving diversity anytime soon.

Start Narrow and Scale

While it is tempting to have a succession plan for every leadership role in the organization, such plans are difficult to track and measure. For that reason, it’s best to identify key roles as a starting point and stagger the rollout of the leadership development process. That way, you can ensure that successes can be realized before scaling the program across all of your leadership roles.

Depending on the size of the organization, it could be best to identify one role to focus on for succession planning and use that role and the identified succession candidates as the center of the conversation to obtain alignment from the rest of the business leaders.

When skills gaps are realized in an organization, it is important to have a process to bridge them. As part of creating the process, a plan to develop leaders should be in place, and the plan should be aligned to the business and designed to allow for learning to happen in a meaningful and measurable way.

Once the succession plan is accepted by the leadership team and the process begins, it is important to not let it be forgotten. The success of the plan should be assessed by tracking and measuring the outputs to determine what changes are needed, if any.

The succession planning process is not easy. However, it has the potential to be one of the most rewarding areas that an HR leader owns.

Having the right leaders in an organization ensures its success, and having successors to keep it moving forward after those leaders exit is an essential step in maintaining a strong organization.

Prudence Pitter Global Head of HR, Auto/Manufacturing and Healthcare & Lifesciences, Amazon Web Services

Prudence Pitter is the global head of HR for Amazon Web Services’ Auto/Manufacturing and Healthcare & Life Sciences division.

Succession Planning: 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid

While your situation may not reach the level of mayhem on HBO’s hit drama “Succession,” a sloppy transition can severely damage a company—and an HR leader’s career. According to a 2023 SHRM Executive Network report, Succession Planning Pitfalls, organizations need to avoid these common mistakes with their succession plans:

Mistake 1: Thinking about replacing the current job holder, not the job. Many organizations mistakenly think about replacing a particular person and not what that person does. It’s critical to not think about the individuals in the current roles. Instead, think about the goals of that role, the remit and the expected outcomes. Plus, if you think about planning for the role versus the individual, you open your mind to different types of people being able to do the same job. And that’s how you harness the power of diversity and drive inclusion.

Mistake 2: Seeing succession planning as set in stone. Succession planning can’t be a “set it and forget it” exercise. Successful succession plans must also be revisited, reviewed, adjusted and restarted. They should be “live” documents, meaning the scope and plan should be able to change to mirror the volatility within your organization. A role that is crucial now—and the person earmarked for that role now—may not be the same in six months or one year, and that is very important for making sure you always act according to the reality of your business needs.

Mistake 3: Not telling successors that they’re successors. Once there is alignment with leaders about your high-potential employees as successors, it is important to share this great news with the envisioned successors. When you do, you may find they were thinking differently about their trajectory in the company—or they don’t want that job at all. Alternatively, it could help to solidify their future with the organization and help them reconsider an exit strategy, if they had one.

Mistake 4: Skipping performance planning. Preparing and developing successors is integral to a solid succession plan, and it builds a culture that encourages growth. One way to put this into practice is to assess a successor’s level of readiness when you let them know they are a successor (e.g., if they’re ready now, in six months or in two years). With this readiness assessment, you can set better expectations for the successor and create a plan to fill in any gaps. You will also ensure that the performance plan stays alive, because the successor will be keen to continue to develop and learn what they need to know.

Mistake 5: Not making your plans inclusive. It’s vital that your succession planning is inclusive and doesn’t directly or indirectly leave qualified people out of the process. Historically, succession plans have tried to fill a role by looking for someone similar to the incumbent. That’s why it’s wise to take a strengths-based approach to succession planning, rather than focusing solely on experience. Look at those who maybe haven’t done the role before but have the motivation and skills to build on. This will mean a more diverse group of employees will be earmarked for leadership roles.