The second week of January is prime job hunting time. The extended break has given people a chance to sit back and reflect. Resolutions about revitalising careers have been made, CVs have been polished and the search for new opportunities begins.

A few weeks later – when the resulting flood of resignations starts – many businesses will find themselves caught short. Key staff are heading off into the sunset, often unexpectedly, and in a competitive job market, it’s going to be difficult (and costly) to replace them quickly.

career plan report

Having a succession plan in place is important for any business, regardless of size. If anything, it’s even more critical for a smaller organisation, where one key person leaving can be incredibly disruptive.

But succession planning isn’t just about having someone available to fill the gap when a position becomes available. In a fast-moving and unpredictable climate, companies need to have a strong team of talent sitting on the bench, ready and waiting to support the organisation through change or help turn its plans for growth into reality.

So if your organisation needs to get started with succession planning, what are the key issues you need to consider?

Start small

If you haven’t engaged in any kind of formal succession planning before, it can seem like an overwhelming task. The key is start slowly and methodically, maybe just focusing on no more than 10 key people and positions. Bear in mind that you will need to be planning for at least three or more potential successors for each position, which means building profiles for more than 30 people. Concentrate on the priority posts and once you’re happy you’ve got the process right, you can roll it out to a wider range of roles.

Take a strategic approach

Getting a handle on the bigger picture is a good place to start.  Think about where your industry is heading, what the leadership team’s vision for the future is and what key skills are likely to be needed to support it. Are you operating in a specialist area where talent is at a premium?  How easy would it be to find people who have the specific skill set you are likely to need going forward? Auditing the people and skills you already have in house is the next step. Which positions are most critical for business continuity, who do you have with the potential to step into those roles, how ready are they?  If they are not quite there yet, what further development and experience would they need?   Once you are armed with all the relevant information, you will be in a good position to initiate conversations and put the right strategies in place.

Use technology to support the process

Sophisticated technology to support succession planning is now available at a price point that’s accessible to most businesses. The Cezanne HR career and succession module, for example, can help you develop people or position centred succession plans and build either general or specialist talent pools. It brings together information about skills, performance, potential, readiness and development needs and makes it easy to link the aspirations of employees with the needs of the business. The software also lets you map out alternative career moves, so that you can see the impact your succession plans may be having further down the business.

Get line managers on side

Line managers can often inadvertently sabotage the succession process. If they’ve got a talented member of staff, who’s delivering great results for their department or team, it’s only human nature to want to hold onto them. But if your succession plan is to deliver the goods, you need managers across the business to be sharing information about their best people and supporting career moves into other areas.   In a recent blog, Simon Patterson of Pearl Meyer advises actively encouraging managers to bring people with skills oriented to the future of the business into their teams. Making good talent management a KPI for team or department heads, or even providing incentives for good practice, is a good way to nudge the kind of behaviours you want to encourage.

Talk to people

One of the biggest mistakes companies make is putting people on a succession plan without any idea of what their aspirations or future plans may be. You may think you have the perfect person to step into a senior role, but if it turns out they have no interest in the job, are planning to move abroad or start up their own consultancy, your plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on – particularly if they are the only ‘ready’ candidate. Performance appraisals provide a great opportunity for managers to have open and honest conversations with their people about where they see their careers heading and what they would like their next move to be. If the resulting information is captured in the HR system, it can feed into the succession planning process and lessen the chance of the business being caught unawares.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.