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Successful Succession Planning in 2021 (The Ultimate Guide)

Learning and Development | 10 Min Read

The ultimate guide to successful succession planning in 2024


Succession planning is not only about identifying potential successors; it is an evolved strategic process that aligns talent development with organizational goals and objectives. This guide will explore the importance of proactive talent identification, the role of data-driven insights in decision-making, and the significance of fostering a culture of continuous learning and development.

As we navigate the ever-changing business landscape, it is also necessary to address the impact of technological advancements on succession planning. From leveraging artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to harnessing the power of digital platforms for talent management, evaluate how organizations are embracing technology to enhance their succession planning strategies.


What is succession planning

Succession planning is a strategic process of identifying the next generation of leaders who can ensure business continuity when key leaders move on to new opportunities, retire or are no longer there. It is a means of preserving the company’s future and the stakeholders associated with it. By identifying possible successors for crucial roles, honing and nurturing their talent, and ensuring they seamlessly fit into the organization’s structure, companies future-proof themselves against the most visible and unforeseeable odds.

Succession planning is a well-structured step-by-step process that combines regular activities and ongoing procedures to comprehend and evaluate potential employees as future leaders. Various companies ensure that the succession plan is adhered to periodically and is adapted, considering the evolving workforce. It is ideal for mitigating risk and building value.

Succession planning broadly covers the senior-most positions in the company’s hierarchy, but companies also consider critical roles along the various stages of the corporate ladder. Employee development is integral to succession planning, as it builds a high level of engagement among the high potentials who desire achievements and career advancement.


Types of succession planning

There are two succession planning models that a company can implement at all organizational levels; they include

  • Leadership succession planning: A leadership succession plan is incorporated to ensure smooth operations, minimize the effects of sudden instances, and have a backup when a key leader puts in their papers. It involves analyzing and evaluating specific skills or competencies among shortlisted talents within the organization to take the helm appropriately. It is undertaken by senior executives such as vice presidents, CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, COOs, directors, and board members to replace dormant members or fill in the committee expertise and skill gaps.
  • Non-leadership succession planning: HR managers can also utilize succession plans for specialized blue-collar or white-collar employees in niche roles under employee succession planning, staff succession planning, workforce succession planning or managerial succession planning categories. These niche roles may not only be mission-critical but are challenging to replace. Hence, a company must be prepared with a succession plan facilitated via cross-training processes and individual and teamwork goals aligned with the department or organizational strategies to find viable successors.


Objectives of succession planning

A succession plan positions the leadership for success and prepares for the unknown. Some key objectives of succession planning in an organization bring more perspective to the entire process.


Ensures continuity

One of the goals and objectives of succession planning is to ensure effective all-around business continuity. Building a leadership pipeline by selecting, shortlisting or developing the abilities and skills needed to maintain a forward-looking trajectory for the company automatically makes it future-ready. It makes one less likely to rush into making wrong decisions during crises.


Identifies critical positions  

One of the objectives of succession planning in HR is to identify critical frontline positions important to a company’s success. C-suites aren’t necessarily the only significant positions. Middle-management and market-vulnerable roles such as sales are equally important in many companies. With a succession plan, companies can outline a defined structure with role-specific job descriptions and strategic contributions that offer clarity to the executives and board members. Concurrently, it is also feasible to identify obsolete or declining positions within the organization with a succession plan.


Underlines the organization’s competency levels 

Another strategic objective of succession planning is implementing competency mapping criteria in the organization. Sustenance and growth are crucial in a competitive environment, and critical competencies help understand the attributes already possessed by the organization. It offers a detailed understanding of talent competencies to be recruited, promoted or developed for long-term stability. Competency mapping is a comprehensive matrix that is practical and worthwhile when planning for succession.


Identifies potential and promotes development

Succession planning’s smart objective is understanding strengths and vulnerabilities, enabling HR to identify existing employees’ latent talent or untapped potential. Such insights allow the management to initiate functional cross-disciplinary training, mentoring and skill development for the designated employees to enhance their existing capabilities. This initiative ensures a better understanding of the internal talent pipeline while creating awareness of the current individuals’ strengths. It also keeps the company a step ahead of its talent needs.


Gives valuable insight into workforce and departments

High-potential identification is the first step in any succession planning exercise. HRs must gain valuable insights. For example, which employee is nearing retirement? Is that employee an asset and, therefore, must be retained? Which employee needs to be given a different role? Whose expertise requires a departmental shift? Several such critical insights are taken into consideration to enable successful transitions.


Why is succession planning important

Some of the many ways succession planning is essential include:

Avoids transitional shortcomings

A succession plan upholds the company’s vision and mission, ensuring owners and executives understand the business’s future direction. The board members often wish to maintain the company’s culture and how values are implemented. A well-charted succession plan gives the board faith in new leaders to maintain continuity in the company’s broader goals and objectives.

Ensures availability of high-potential future leaders    

A succession plan also creates awareness about the quality and strength of high-potential employees. High potentials exhibit high competency levels in their current role and a high propensity for taking up significant future responsibilities and challenges. The awareness about an employee’s ability to take on critical future roles makes the workforce future-ready, providing business advantages.

Boosts retention and engagement

Succession planning’s importance extends to offering excellent incentives to employees. If the employees understand the value accorded by their company to them, they are motivated to work toward the business goal. It improves the company’s retention and employee satisfaction rate. The succession planning process also attracts quality and dependable candidates.

Competitive advantage

Amidst a fast-transforming business landscape, a thorough succession plan bolsters the chances of managing disruptions. Only able and foreseeing corporate leaders can embrace the risks and uphold the company’s reputation and long-term growth. It enables them to focus on long-term business opportunities rather than the opportunities in the next few quarters.

No lengthy vacant period

Internal candidates are well-familiarized with the company’s culture. Hence, they are inclined to proactively take charge and smoothen the transition from one leader to another. Thus, succession planning benefits extend to disaster-proofing the business against such odds.

Lower expenditure

Having a succession roadmap can be perceived as an expense by the company. However, it is an ongoing process that minimizes time and financial resources in shortlisting, recruiting and grooming leadership from outside when one already has a qualified pipeline of candidates internally.


What are the challenges of succession planning

Succession planning comes with its own set of challenges. Some of them are:

  • Organizations often collect data in a fragmented manner, overlooking valuable information. Inadequate analysis hinders the objective evaluation of potential successors, leading to reliance on past performance rather than future potential.
  • One must ensure that potential successors are adequately prepared for their future roles. It requires investing in their development through training, mentoring, and providing growth opportunities.
  • Finding individuals with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and potential to step into leadership roles can be challenging. A manager's perception and unconscious biases can influence this process. These biases can result from a lack of qualitative, holistic data and hinder the objective evaluation of potential successors.
  • It is not always possible for high performers at one level to thrive in higher-level positions. Relying solely on past performance does not provide a holistic analysis. The focus should be on selecting or developing individuals based on their suitability for higher-level positions' distinct challenges and demands.
  • Succession planning becomes more complex when the organization has specialized roles or technical expertise. These roles may require new sets of competencies and skills. Identifying individuals with the skills and knowledge to fill these roles requires well-carved-out competency models, proactive talent development, and strategic workforce planning.


What is the role of HR in succession planning

HR plays a crucial role in succession planning, encompassing responsibilities such as identifying potential successors, designing and executing development initiatives, tracking progress, and offering consistent feedback.

Additionally, HR fosters a culture of succession planning, encouraging employees to consider their career paths, promoting diversity and inclusion, and adapting to changing internal and external factors. This comprehensive approach ensures that organizations fill vacancies and adapt and flourish in the present and future.




Succession planning framework

A succession planning framework is essential in ensuring a consistent and effective process. The framework has two preconditions: creating a culture of leadership development and selecting critical roles.

  • Creating a leadership culture involves a clear commitment from senior management, including the CEO, to support succession planning and long-term leadership development. Senior leaders should actively participate in mentoring activities and help successors develop leadership competencies. Performance appraisal and reward processes should also incorporate leadership development activities, such as identifying and nurturing high-potential employees.
  • Selecting critical roles is crucial to identify positions that, if left vacant or filled with the wrong person, would affect the company. CEO positions are essential, and many companies need a contingency plan for succession. Critical roles can be identified by looking at the most senior individuals in the organization’s hierarchy or the highest earners. A well-defined job architecture with clear function descriptions and rewards based on responsibilities can aid in this selection process.


Succession planning model

The succession planning framework usually requires two preconditions, as described above. Once these preconditions are met, the succession planning process can commence. The essential steps in this process include:


Talent development:

Taking a long-term approach and integrating talent and leadership development initiatives is recommended for an effective succession planning strategy. Succession planning often focuses on senior leadership positions that can be filled by individuals currently in mid-level leadership roles. Therefore, combining talent and leadership development with succession planning is beneficial. It involves implementing talent development programs that provide high-potential employees with training, diverse tasks, and challenging assignments. Career planning, job rotation, and mentoring are essential for talent development.


Identification of leadership talent:

Continuous monitoring and evaluation of participants in talent development programs are necessary to succeed in critical leadership positions. Various tools, such as mentors, committees, surveys, and coding systems, can aid in assessing managerial strength and identifying potential leaders. Diversity should be a key consideration during this phase, as it contributes to a more varied future boardroom.


Leadership development: 

This stage involves further developing individuals with strong leadership potential. Leadership development differs from standard talent development and includes organizing internal courses, workshops, and opportunities for future leaders to establish connections with current organizational leaders. Active learning through challenging projects, stretch assignments, 360-degree feedback, and executive coaching are also crucial for their growth.


Succession decision:

Based on the previous steps, a succession matrix can be created to map potential successors for each function. Considering the likelihood of turnover in critical roles identified earlier is crucial, as turnover can impact the succession plan. Managing expectations and monitoring turnover rates are vital to ensure the effectiveness of the succession planning strategy.


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Succession planning examples

In 2008, McCormick & Co executed a successful succession planning strategy when they smoothly transitioned their CEO, Robert Lawless, to his successor, Alan Wilson. Lawless took a proactive approach by creating a five-year timeline, gradually transitioning to a non-executive chairman role. He also allocated a portion of his discretionary compensation to identify and prepare the ideal candidate for his position. The organization developed the succession plan over an extended period, implementing tailored development strategies for senior executives. They closely monitored potential candidates before selecting Wilson based on his alignment with company culture and understanding of critical issues.

Similarly, Apple Inc. has implemented a successful succession plan by promoting internal talent and fostering an innovative culture. They have a structured leadership development program identifying and nurturing potential successors for critical positions. Apple emphasizes cross-functional exposure and encourages employees to gain diverse experience within the organization.


Disadvantages of not having a succession plan

While some businesses have a definite succession plan, others hire new candidates for important positions. Such instances pose grave challenges and disadvantages to business continuity in unforeseen situations in the following ways:


Not having a succession plan exposes the company and its stakeholders to unnecessary risks, creating confusion and chaos. Leaving critical roles vacant for an uncertain period may severely damage the business infrastructure.

Thinning of internal loyalty:

Alienating potential successors and promoting the wrong talent due to hasty decisions can create a volatile work environment and a lack of motivation. Many experts and in-house employees have claimed that choosing an outsider can endanger employee loyalty.

High attrition:

Employees want growth opportunities in the company. If they don’t see the company investing in their professional development and career advancement, they may choose to leave their jobs. Consequently, the company may end up losing a high-performing employee.

Unorganized architecture:

It takes work to foresee business challenges. But without a succession plan, it isn’t easy to survive an evolving business landscape. It’s not prudent to announce someone’s retirement and not name a replacement; this can impact the company’s image.


What are the seven steps to a succession planning process?

Below is an insightful, seven-step succession planning process to help get started with the succession planning procedure. The seven steps of succession planning include:

  1. Uncovering key business positions: These positions are significant for an organization’s continuity and success. These positions are substantial as they are too critical to be left vacant for long or extremely difficult to fill.
  2. Mapping key competencies to build success profiles: This step involves identifying the behavioral requirements of a specific role to find the most appropriate fit to make the assessment more objective, streamlined, efficient and effective.
  3. Shortlisting potential successors: Shortlisting candidates as successors should span the whole organ­i­za­tion. Apart from senior management, one must look across departments, positions, and teams to find any employee in any area who can be a likely successor.
  4. Choosing the most appropriate succession planning tools: Finding the right new tools and systems needed to support the roles results in fruitful results.
  5. Assessing potential successors: Devising robust, in-depth strategies and exercises to determine whether the nominated candidates have the knowledge, skills and caliber to perform the new role is critical.
  6. Charting the way forward: Only some candidates will be a successor. Hence, charting a customized way forward for each potential’s journey to nurture them to reach a certain level is vital.
  7. Acting upon the decision: Proactively implementing the succession planning process is essential. Hence, preparation is a time-saver. It is not a one-off process; it can stretch into months and even years, evolving continuously.
  8. Designing a succession planning template: While many companies look outside their domain for an ideal successor, investing in the internal talent pool when initiating a succession planning process will likely yield better results.




How can the nine-box grid be used to improve succession planning?

The nine-box grid is a valuable tool managers use in succession planning to assess team members’ performance potential and identify high-performing individuals with the potential for promotion. Engaging these top performers through challenges, recognition, and rewards is crucial for their ongoing growth and motivation. To effectively utilize the nine-box grid for succession planning, follow the below steps:


Setting up the grid:

One can start by creating a three-by-three grid, with the X-axis representing different performance measures (such as productivity, leadership, or teamwork) and the Y-axis representing levels of potential (such as low, moderate, or high).


Assigning team members to boxes:

It is essential to evaluate each team member’s potential and performance, considering factors such as their current abilities, growth potential, and readiness for advancement, followed by assigning them to the appropriate box in the grid based on this assessment.


Creating action plans for each member:

Using team members’ positions in the matrix to develop tailored action plans for each employee yields good results. For example, individuals with “moderate performance, high potential” can be earmarked for promotions and provided with targeted training or mentorship to enhance their skills and readiness for advanced roles.


Enhancing performance and potential:

Implementing the action plans developed for each team member to maximize their potential and improve their performance is vital. It is essential to offer development opportunities such as training programs, stretch assignments, or coaching, as well as provide the necessary support and resources for their growth and tracking progress.


Reviewing and revising the grid as needed:

Regularly reviewing and updating the nine-box grid is recommended to ensure its relevance and effectiveness in succession planning. As performance and potential can change over time, it is essential to periodically reassess team members and adjust their positions on the grid.


Global trends influencing succession planning

Trends impact businesses worldwide. Some of the global trends influencing succession planning are:


Remote work environment:

As remote work and virtual teams become more prevalent, organizations must adapt their succession planning practices, identifying and developing leaders who can effectively lead in a remote or hybrid work setting.


Digital leadership capabilities:

The increasing significance of digital transformation requires leaders with strong digital skills and the ability to navigate technological advancements. Succession planning should prioritize the development of digital leadership competencies.


Data-driven succession planning:

By utilizing predictive analytics, organizations can identify high-potential employees, assess performance, and make informed decisions regarding succession planning.


Agile succession planning:

Embracing an agile approach to succession planning allows companies to respond swiftly to changing market dynamics and unexpected leadership vacancies.


Diversity and inclusion: 

Understanding the significance of diversity and inclusion in succession planning efforts is crucial for fostering a broader range of leadership perspectives and driving innovation.


Succession planning best practices

Some of the best practices to incorporate in succession planning include:

  • Aligning succession planning with strategic goals to ensure it supports the organization's long-term vision.
  • Fostering a culture of development by promoting continuous learning and providing career growth opportunities for employees.
  • Reviewing and updating succession plans to adapt to changing business needs, emerging talent, and leadership requirements.
  • Embracing diversity and inclusion in succession planning by considering candidates from diverse backgrounds and perspectives to drive innovation and avoid biases.
  • Communicating the purpose and benefits of succession planning to stakeholders, fostering transparency and inclusivity.
  • Continuously evaluate the effectiveness of the succession planning program through metrics, feedback, and reviews to drive improvement.
  • Establishing a well-structured development process enables individuals to acquire the skills needed for critical roles in the future.
  • Setting and tracking succession planning goals using tangible metrics to gain leaders' support and identify improvement areas.
  • Integrating succession planning with talent management strategies to retain critical talents and create a comprehensive succession plan.




Succession planning tools

Businesses are expected to remain relevant by adapting, innovating, and accelerating toward the digital ecosystem. They must prepare and prioritize their vision, identify vulnerabilities, shortlist pipeline potentials, and envisage a path forward. These can be achieved with a leader, plan, or tools.

Succession planning tools help identify employees with the potential knowledge and skillsets to fill critical roles. They allow one to navigate ahead by syncing the vision with a suitable leader. The succession planning toolkit identifies and prepares top talent for various roles and challenges for achieving organizational success by providing in-depth knowledge of individuals’ essential, work-relevant personality traits and behavioral tendencies.

Personality Assessment

In succession planning, gaining a comprehensive understanding of personality is vital, which management might need to be aware of. Therefore, companies consistently assess personality traits exhibited by the candidate despite changing circumstances.

Personality assessments are commonly undertaken at the mid and senior levels. This top succession planning software tool is validated and optimized to test beyond the traditional ‘Big-Five’ personality framework. It provides a comprehensive picture of the culture and role-fitment while evaluating the likelihood of handling integral work-related activities. It also offers objective insights into how others might react to the same situation.

Behavioural Assessment

A behavioral assessment tool requires candidates to demonstrate chosen and critical behavioral competencies in one or multiple exercises that mirror actual workplace situations. It identifies and analyzes behaviors required of employees when they take the lead, professionally and socially.

A behavioral tool brings clarity to how people behave at work. Hence, they combine innovation and scientific rigor to assess role fitment. Different types of behavioral assessments can be used independently or in combination for an individual’s holistic overview. It includes caselets, situational judgment tests, and inbox exercises to gauge an employee’s mindset and potential.

Cognitive Assessment

Cognitive ability is the brain’s ability to undertake core tasks such as thinking, learning, memorizing, paying attention, visualizing, recognizing, organizing and interpreting the surroundings (perception).

In succession planning, cognitive tests assess critical thinking and reasoning logic related to on-the-job performance. The test measures two intelligence types, crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence, through a series of complex questions. When planning succession for top management, cognitive tests help measure leaders’ aptitude to achieve excellence aligned with business goals.

Technical Assessment

A technical competency framework provides detailed insights into identifying IT/ non-IT skill sets for companies assessing technical roles. Various professional tests offer comprehensive knowledge of the on-the-job-relevant behaviors and the technical expertise required to be successful.

360-degree feedback

Seeking feedback from multiple stakeholders, such as the employee’s superiors, peers, direct reports, and clients, enables them to understand their perceptions of the employee’s readiness to take on future roles. Leveraging this information can help the employee develop a more well-rounded perspective on performance, skill levels and behavior as perceived by others. Using a multi-rater feedback mechanism, such as Mercer | Mettl’s 360-Degree Feedback survey, allows one to understand whether the concerned employee has demonstrated leadership qualities. Using this tool as an additional metric to determine the most suitable fit ensures that multiple perspectives are factored in when making the final decision.


Assessment and development centers

Assessment and development centers (ADCs) are scalable, cost-efficient, and tailor-made tools that help identify successors across various jobs and levels. ADCs combine roleplays, situational judgment tests, group discussions, presentations, interviews, simulations, psychometric and aptitude tests, and similar activities to make crucial decisions. These multiple assessments provide a detailed evaluation of candidates to determine their most appropriate roles. The ADC toolkit can be administered either virtually or in a blended format.

Virtual assessment and development centers

A virtual assessment and development center employs multiple online tools to evaluate the extent to which chosen participants display select competencies. It is a detailed evaluation of individuals’ role fitment by assessing their various aspects for success in a critical role. With no logistical hassles, no bias, and simple infrastructure requirements in internet connectivity and computers, decision-makers gain a holistic understanding of the candidates through multiple lenses.

Blended assessment and development centers

Blended assessment and development centers are a combination of onsite and online assessments. The assessors gain insightful and data-backed outcomes by expanding the means and methods of measuring a potential candidate. This interwoven scenario is a valuable supplement to the repertoire of available assessments and provides different perspectives on each outcome.

Additionally, the blended ACDC toolkit consists of the following:

  • Group discussion and group activities: These are conducted among a selected few candidates tasked to work with all the group members to solve a given problem. Through such group activities, candidates are assessed on social skills, leadership propensity, influence, inclusivity and other values. They are undertaken with assessors as observers who evaluate the candidates’ competencies. Candidates are assessed on active participation and their quality of ideas and perspectives.
  • Case study presentation: A hypothetical business-related case study is presented to the participants. This activity tests them on their regular day-to-day roles. It offers HR managers a glimpse of the problems while allowing them to experience critical interdependencies, execute best practices and explore alternatives to devise an all-embracing succession planning system.
  • One-to-one roleplay: This activity enables examining how the participants behave with others in a given situation. This exercise allows the assessors to observe how the participants respond when dealing with challenging interpersonal conditions. An individual’s ability to perform well in this activity will likely directly correlate with the role’s required competencies and behaviors. It is an ideal HR succession planning software feature.
  • Competency-based interview: A competency-based interview uncovers the participant’s past performance through questions. It highlights their abilities to perform the job.


Factors affecting the succession planning system

To ensure the management undertakes the best succession and talent management practice, providing significant benefits, here are a few factors to remember. Some of them are:


Factor Affecting The Succession Planning System


The role or title one is planning is a crucial factor affecting which succession planning toolkit is needed. The profile specifies how complex or straightforward the tools must be while deciding. For example, a senior leadership role will require a more comprehensive succession planning system than a junior role. A higher role demands a more thorough assessment of the candidate’s leadership qualities, knowledge, future-thinking approach, and actions.


The succession planning requirements of every industry are distinct. For instance, a software firm’s requirements don’t need to be like that of a retail firms. While one must prioritize technical performance, the other will prefer different skill sets. Therefore, one cannot follow a one-tool-fits-all approach here. Hence, businesses considering succession planning tools should comprehend their industry’s goals in sync with their business requirements and dynamic workforce.


Succession planning takes time to design and is implemented in the future. Hence, time is a critical factor that helps decide the succession planning tools required in a succession planning model. For instance, the more time you have at disposal, the greater advantage is in expanding the tool kit, viz-a-viz someone who needs to fill a role urgently.


Like any organizational initiative, a systematic succession plan can only be initiated with budgetary considerations. After all, scouting, recognizing, developing, and evaluating talent needs financial input. Hence, fiscal consideration allows organizations to focus on the tools to implement a succession planning system.



Effective succession planning is crucial for any organization’s long-term success and sustainability. This guide provides insights and steps to help organizations navigate the complexities of succession planning. It offers a roadmap for building a robust succession plan, from assessing current talent pools to creating development programs and establishing clear communication channels. By investing in succession planning, organizations can mitigate risks, foster a culture of growth and development, and position themselves for future success. With careful planning and execution, companies can confidently navigate leadership transitions and secure a flourishing future.



1. Is succession planning only for executives?

2. Which critical roles need succession planning?

3. What is the difference between succession planning and succession management?

4. How long does succession planning take?

5. Which model is most used in succession planning?

6. What is succession planning in human resource management?

7. Who is responsible for succession planning?

Originally published February 24 2020, Updated June 7 2024

Written by

Archita Bharadwaj has worked as a Content writer at Mercer | Mettl since April 2023. With her research background, she writes varied forms of content, including blogs, ebooks, and case studies, among other forms.

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