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Why succession management fails: Unraveling the complexity of succession planning


Succession planning is a critical aspect of organizational sustainability and leadership continuity. Yet, the reality is that many successors don’t successfully transition into their designated roles.

This phenomenon isn’t just a matter of chance; it’s rooted in systemic issues within the nomination and development process.

This blog post delves into the reasons behind this trend, supplemented by real-world examples that underscore the challenges and implications of leadership succession planning.


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Challenge 1: Flaws in the succession nomination process


The succession nomination process is often flawed due to its limited scope and subjective nature. Incumbents are tasked with naming successors from their professional circle or current team, inherently restricting the pool of candidates to a familiar few.

This approach narrows diversity and overlooks potential talents outside their immediate network.

Using talent analytics can help businesses identify every possible successor for a specific role by applying some basic criteria for the role, making a larger pool of individuals visible for consideration.


Challenge 2: Accuracy of succession assessments


Assessing a successor’s readiness is exceedingly subjective. The typical “they are ready now” or “they will be ready later” categorization fails to capture the nuances of an individual’s capabilities and development needs.

The vagueness of the description would never be tolerated in another function, e.g. if a CFO was asked how much money the company made, “a lot” would never be an acceptable answer. Why then do we accept vague answers in talent management?

The good news is that there are specific succession criteria that can accurately predict a readiness timeframe. This framework uses the concept of both distance, (the current gap to the target role) and speed, (the ability and willingness of the successor to close the gap).


When we talk about talent identification in succession, we’re not just referring to skills or experience, but rather, the fit between a person and the context in which they need to operate (their new role). As HR professionals, our job is to identify talent quickly and accurately.


Challenge 3: Transparency in succession processes


The absence of a concrete plan for successor development is a glaring oversight in many organizations. Fearing the creation of false expectations, companies often refrain from informing candidates about potential future roles.

This lack of transparency and the company’s willingness to manage expectations can result in identified successors moving on because they are unaware of the potential opportunity.

Getting a successor ready for a role is like getting an athlete ready for a race. The coach can prepare the runner to the best of their ability, but it doesn’t guarantee a win on race day against other competitors.

If organizations make the succession process more visible and develop a larger pool of successors for each role, candidates will understand (and appreciate) that their performance and growth are being tracked and measured.


Challenge 4: Lack of incentive to develop successors


The incumbent (current leader) lacks the incentive to develop successors. This is a significant hurdle. The incumbent isn’t impacted by a successor’s lack of readiness because they are moving on to another opportunity, which is seldom their existing manager’s job. They don’t have much skin in the game if their successor doesn’t succeed.

The individual responsible for developing the incoming successor (the successor developer) needs to be the person who will make the hiring decision once the incumbent moves on. They are the ones who are incentivized to have a competent successor ready to move into the position when the time comes.

Companies must nominate and incentivize “successor developers” who are not the outgoing incumbents.


Challenge 5: Evidence-based decision-making in succession


The decision-making process for filling the vacated leadership position often lacks a foundation in comprehensive, objective evidence.

The incumbent’s manager, who ultimately makes the selection, may not be familiar with the nominated successors or might rely on the limited interaction they have had with a successor.

A common bias is hiring people that you don’t know that well. The psychology behind this is that if you know someone well, you’ll likely understand both their strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t know someone that well, you’ll only know of their strengths.


Challenge 6: Not viewing succession as a risk management strategy


The cumulative effect of these issues is a succession planning process that seldom prepares successors for success.

Organizations experience a false sense of security regarding their leadership pipeline and are often caught off-guard when there is suddenly no successor or the nominated individual struggles in their new role.

Succession is primarily a risk management strategy to ensure that critical positions are not left vacant for extended periods and that there is a level of continuity in knowledge and experience in key roles.

Succession management is about more than just replacing leaders. It is a vital process for the long-term survival of any organization.


How to enhance succession planning and management


To mitigate these challenges, organizations must adopt a more holistic and inclusive approach to succession planning.

This includes broadening the search beyond the incumbent’s immediate network, utilizing objective criteria for assessing readiness, implementing transparent development plans, and ensuring active involvement from current leaders in preparing their successors. By doing so, companies can not only avoid the pitfalls highlighted but also ensure a smoother transition of leadership, thereby safeguarding their future.

The road to successful succession planning is fraught with obstacles, yet it’s a journey worth navigating with intention and foresight. By understanding the underlying reasons why successors often don’t succeed and learning from the examples set by others, organizations can recalibrate their strategies for a more resilient and effective leadership transition.


One succession planning solution that will solve your process, data and technology challenges


Succession management software and succession planning tools alone will not give you the results you’re looking for.

At Peopletree Group, we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. We perform an in-depth analysis of your challenges and combine this with the right assessments, technology, and tools to help you implement a solution that fits your business. Understand how Peopletree Group’s succession management solution can help you:

  • Identify your critical roles for succession
  • Establish success criteria to find every possible candidate
  • Accurately measure both the distance and speed gap (time to readiness) in months (not years)
  • Create specific development plans to close the gap
  • Track progress toward readiness goals
  • Provide ready-to-use dashboards and reports that are simple to explain and easy to present.