Why do succession efforts fail and how can organizations fix these mistakes to build sustainable organizations that manage their talent and leadership channels well for future success.

The business case for succession planning is not new, however, the business mandate for succession efforts has never been stronger. In the labor market, both the demand and supply side has shifted as the seasoned Boomers and the well experienced Gen-Y leaders exit the workforce. The shifting age- mix of employees brings to the forefront the need for effective succession planning. Besides the need to invest in succession planning efforts, it has been shown in various research studies that companies that invest in robust succession planning efforts deliver better business results. Companies with stronger leadership development systems delivered higher returns on equity and profit as compared to their counterparts which did not invest in succession efforts. Majority of top financial reporting companies hold their leaders accountable for developing talent. Organizations with top-tier leaders outperform competitors. However, buying leadership talent carries a significant premium versus building the pipeline internally. Despite the clear advantages, why would so many organizations fail at something considered so important? While reasons vary across organizations, one of the most common problems to begin with is that succession planning means different things to different people in the same organization. Also, while the succession theme has emerged as a top-of-the-mind issue amongst leaders, there is often more talks about it, than the ‘real action’. In the absence of real commitment to succession planning and development as a strategy for building a sustainable organization of the future, most leadership teams remain focused on tackling tactical and operational issues and remain myopic in their approach as development processes lose steam- ‘The Here and Now’ becomes supreme and the future is lost sight of as they wrestle with the realities of the present. Talent acquisition in such organizations is a scramble to fill gaps with no real sense of future talent needs. Such organizations tend to believe that succession management is a distraction from immediate needs, not realizing that tomorrow’s organizational needs have to be planned today. Succession planning is often seen as a project rather than an ongoing strategic priority, something that gets discussed once a year as part of a talent review process than a regular top-of-the-mind issue! Unfortunately, succession plans can then deteriorate into popularity contests with a list of names rather than a thoughtfully measured analysis of eligible candidates. Organizations that do not invest in succession planning as an ongoing strategic exercise tends to not have a clear grasp on their talent across locations/ departments/ functions. Each location/department/ function may know of promising talent in their own area, however, robust succession planning requires them to have access to the talent pool of promising candidates across the organization. Deploying technology to access talent profiles across the organization is greatly useful in carrying out this exercise in a meaningful manner.

Lack of transparency

The absence of transparency in succession planning is a common shortcoming. Several organizations that conduct talent assessments and succession forecasting fail to communicate the expectations and plans to the candidates. These organizations are often later surprised when a promising candidate turns down a promotion at a later stage. Several organizations devote a lot of succession planning energies only to external talent development rather than balancing both pools of talent. Paying attention to both streams of talent ensures that instead of settling for the best available candidate, there are enough options that emerge from both internal talent pools that have been carefully and deliberately developed and there is also a stream of external talent available to the organization. In the end, succession is about mitigating risks to the organization that begins with developing more options internally and externally.

What keeps succession planning from becoming a reality?

The most common mistakes organizations make because of which succession efforts remain a program or a hot topic for conversation rather than actually translating into a strategic priority – Here are the most commonly occurring bumps in the road, wrong- turns and challenges :

  1. Organizations assume that succession management is an HR program rather than a core senior management
  2. Organizations rush into succession management as part of a larger exercise and do not give it the priority and focus it deserves because of lack of bandwidth or time to invest in this important
  3. Organizations try to attempt too much- too When succession management is rolled out on the back of several other HR programs, it becomes just that one more program or employee list to create for HR.
  4. Organizations suffer from internal myopia and assume that ‘nothing will happen to our top people and that succession planning is something other companies need to do’
  5. Organizations conduct succession planning in an HR vacuum and fail to link succession planning and development to other HR
  6. Organizations may attempt succession planning with an inconsistent or vague definition of what constitutes high quality leadership for the
  7. When succession planning is not accompanied by succession development efforts- succession planning is incomplete. Individual development plans for future successors must form the core of effective succession planning
  8. Companies make a great start and then fail to sustain their succession   Oftentimes, one great succession planning review meeting is not followed through for development, yielding no results in building leadership pipelines or improving retention and sustainability of the organizations.

What can you do?

So what can organizations do differently to sustain and reap the benefits of a meaningful succession planning exercise? Organizations must start right at the top. Succession planning MUST be treated as an executive priority. The highest levels within the organization must dedicate executive meeting time to discuss talent needs. Developing talent must be a core responsibility shared by all senior executives. Succession planning cannot be a one-off effort- it must be linked to the organization’s overall strategic priorities. This requires a linkage to future business needs, a clear understanding of emerging business priorities and a complete integration with talent management practices. That way the organization is forced to look at who all can do the job in the future rather than remaining focused on who all can deliver the job in the current present. Gut cannot be the only thing to rely on. It is okay to have a good gut feel on a potential candidate, however, it is a great idea to back the intuition with hard data on how the candidate measures up against the behaviors and characteristics needed for success. In the succession context, it is important that this data is collected in an objective and accurate way. Most organizations rely on personal recommendations and impressions about potential candidates. It is great to use objective processes of measuring potential such as development centers to ensure consistent baselines for measuring succession candidates. The  best  succession candidates are built over a period of time rather than being discovered. Ongoing talent development programs to harness leadership potential are necessary to convert the potential of succession         candidates  to performance. Ongoing efforts to develop succession candidates increase the chances of getting the right person in the right job.

Being transparent about succession efforts

Serious succession efforts require clear, relevant and timely communication. This includes being prepared to have tough discussions and answer challenging questions to garner respect for the organization’s succession efforts. Overall effective succession efforts enable the organization to determine bench strength in critical areas of business capability and management competencies. It also helps to maintain a diverse talent pool and ensures that there is a pool of leaders to fulfill the business plans of the organization. This in turn leads to reduced turnover of key top talent and, reduced replacement cost, thus enabling better quality employee data for decision- making Several organizations steer clear of formal succession planning efforts as they fear it will be expensive – a drain on the organization’s resources. In fact, the only real resource that is required to be invested is time. It requires thoughtful and deliberate planning on part of the organization, seriously committed to reaping the outcomes of effective succession planning and development. It is hard, ongoing work but one that can pay off rich outcomes for organizations that are committed enough to make succession planning a priority.

The succession challenge in the face of change and uncertainty:

Organizations are asking three key questions in this situation. (a)What is the point of agreeing on a pool of successors when the investment community may lose patience with the strategy and demand fresh leadership from outside? (b) Should we chart out a set of maneuvers when we don’t know if we are acquiring a company next year or may be ourselves? (c)Why should we invest in developing Leadership Talent when we can poach talent from our competitors or even worse, lose our people to competition? Organizations are resisting successful efforts under the shield of uncertainty and change. Several organizations are of the opinion that they can’t predict the future. Their strategy will keep evolving and so will their position in the marketplace. Organizational structure will evolve to represent organizational priorities while managers will move both internally and externally. It therefore, doesn’t make sense to plan and develop capabilities for the future when they can’t define future leadership requirements.


If our leadership pipelines are not built and we don’t develop our management we will lose the capability to compete in the future. Succession planning is therefore re-emerging as an important dynamic in organizational success for a basic reason that progressive organizations that focus on and act now on the future will always out- trump those that are caught in the present.