How to Leverage Succession Planning to Drive Strategic Change

Talent management professionals design succession management/talent review processes that help leaders set, monitor and recalibrate their efforts to align people and strategy.  Yet there is a great opportunity for improvement in these processes. Only 57 percent of leaders who named succession planning a current top priority are confident in the results produced by the process[1]. In our consulting practice we have found two areas that frequently hamper the value that succession planning creates for organizations and their leaders. By focusing on these areas, talent management executives can better ensure that strategic change proceeds in their organizations with success.

Evolve Your Succession Planning Process

Enhancing the impact and value of succession planning from initial adoption to full mastery is not as simple as choosing the right software tool or review framework. In fact, we have found that organizations tend to evolve through five stages of expertise on their way to fully mature succession planning capability:


By locating your company’s current practice in this framework, you can get a sense of which process improvements to pursue, and in what order. While there will likely be a temptation to jump directly to Stage 5, remember that building organizational practices is like building muscles – it happens over time, with each stage building on the successes of previous efforts. Plans to upgrade practices should reflect good judgment about what are reasonable improvement goals: People and organizations do best when they stretch rather than strain. Also, remember to state your proposals in terms that address the planning needs your organization’s leaders have expressed. This is the best way to earn executive backing for your planned evolution.

Enrich Your Assessment of Needed Competencies

Most talent reviews are based on interpersonal/leadership capability models. While these capabilities are critical, incorporating business competencies can give the process even more strategic value. Business competencies include sales and marketing strategy, lean manufacturing skills and risk management know-how. These competencies link directly to the strategic issues that leaders consider when planning how to achieve business objectives. An example of a rating scale to assess the Marketing business competency is shown below.


Business competencies like Product Marketing above represent the “what” of strategy, and are pressing concerns for most executives. However, interpersonal competencies like Driving for Results, Being Strategically Agile and Taking Accountability are the “hows” of executing strategy, and also indispensable to making strategic change happen. Forum’s research on Strategic Speed has documented the important role that people factors like accountability play in optimizing the value derived from investments in strategic initiatives.[2] And just like business competencies, interpersonal competencies can be described as a spectrum of masterable skill levels.

Use Ratings that Clarify the Learning Path

The business and interpersonal/leadership competency rating scales are multiple-choice scales that reflect how a given competency evolves from basic to advanced levels. By specifying each competency as a series of skill levels to master, this tool can also be useful for creating a development plan – translating insight into strategic action. For example, the competency definition for the business skill of Taking Accountability outlined below represents a path of mastery from basic to advanced. If one were to receive a rating of 3, then the descriptors for levels 4 and 5 outline the path to higher levels of mastery. This clarity is critical to mobilizing the executive team toward achieving performance that matters.


Include Talent Forecasts in Your Succession Review Process

Especially during times of industry disruption, we need to ensure that today’s high potentials have the capabilities needed to meet tomorrow’s challenges. These enhanced competency assessment tools can also be used to give leaders the ability to determine whether the talent will be on hand to meet the future strategic needs of the business. These are the steps to take to add talent forecasting into the succession planning process:

  • Clarify the strategic issues the business will face in the future
  • Determine the capabilities and competencies that will be needed to meet these challenges
  • Identify the target levels of the priority capabilities that are needed to meet the challenges (i.e., what level on the rating scale)
  • Evaluate talent against these criteria to define strategic talent gaps
  • Re-evaluate talent against these criteria in future cycles to track progress

HR can help by giving leaders the tools they need to make judgments about mission critical talent gaps and evaluate the progress that is being made in closing them. This is a critical support to executives as most have difficulty translating strategic plans into effective talent management initiatives.[3] The following dashboard illustrates a company talent forecast.


From Insight to Action

A well-designed succession planning process helps focus learning and skill application activities, translating insights about potential into competencies that support business strategy implementation.[4] The most effective programs reflect the following Forum principles of high impact development:

  • Connect action and reflection in a continuous cycle
  • Address attitudes, values and beliefs and behavior
  • Deepen engagement by encouraging teaching and learning
  • Design and develop learning communities with creative use of media

The recommendations we outlined above can help talent management professionals optimize the contribution that succession planning makes to the businesses they serve.


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[1] 2012 report from The Conference Board

[2] Davis, J, Frechette, H., & Boswell, E.  (2010).  Strategic Speed:  Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution.   Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press.

[3] 2012 McKinsey report

[4] Principles of Workplace Learning, Forum, 2010

Tom Rose

Tom Rose, Ph.D., is a psychologist with 25 years of experience playing internal leadership and external consultant roles in the consumer products, financial services, and pharmaceuticals industries. He has led human resource as well as talent management, talent planning, compensation, and metrics functions at Sun Life Financial and Reebok. Tom served as chief human resources officer and vice president of Human Capital Development at Syracuse University. Tom earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees from DePaul University. He also completed pre-doctoral internships in clinical psychology at Hines-Loyola Medical Center and in industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Tom received the Sun Life CEO award for his work on the firm’s global succession management system. Currently finalizing a book on change leadership, he has also published on the topics of organizational productivity and influence strategy.

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