Navigating the Perils of Succession Planning

Introducing a greater degree of transparency in a corporation can often be a breath of fresh air, but it can also pose some potential pitfalls.

For instance, organizational insiders and outsiders are privy to more information, which in turn may be misinterpreted or taken out of context, conflict with stated policy, implicate or embarrass valued employees, fall outside of regulatory guidelines, reveal trade secrets or compromise competitive advantage. It’s easy to understand senior business leaders’ hesitation to take this route.

When it comes to a process such as succession planning, even in companies and organizations which are not publicly traded, stakeholders are demanding transparency in how new leaders are identified, groomed and chosen. Whether one or many employees are involved, everyone wants a say or at least wants to know that a succession process is fair and in the best interest of the organization.

As a result, those charged with handling successions — executives, HR and talent management leaders, board and search committee members — will need to answer the tough questions from various constituents.

Employee X who goes through a succession process for a high-profile position yet is ultimately passed over will want to know, “Why not me? My performance was solid. I tested well. My resume stacks up.” Who will have that conversation? Looking the employee in the eyes, what will he or she say?

Organizations that seek transparency in succession and hiring must first take steps to ensure they’re ready:

Balance transparency with candidate confidentiality. Most executive succession planning today involves a host of activities to prepare employees over a long period of time: skill and behavioral assessments; meetings and interviews with key organization leaders; and high-profile project leadership and development efforts. When test results are tabulated and evaluation reports written, how much of this information should be shared, and with whom? Employee confidentiality is just as critical as transparency, and high-performers who lose out on a new position may decide to exit the organization if their privacy has not been respected.

Ensure organizational integrity. Companies and organizations must determine before a search or succession process starts how much strategic information to reveal to employees and other parties. As a rule of thumb, the organization need only share generalities about employees and strategies as long as it shares specific details about exactly how the process was conducted and by which criteria decisions were made. Are leaders and supervisors prepared to address questions regarding the process and decision criteria?

Craft strategy-based position profiles. Transparency invites scrutiny. Everything that happens during a succession should ultimately be tied to the profile of the ideal candidate who aligns with the organization’s long-term strategic goals. If a candidate is selected against clearly stated strategic criteria, detractors will have less ammunition to say that the wrong person was hired.

Map out thorough succession strategies. As with position profiles, it is important to have sound plans and timelines for how candidates will be developed and selected. Organizations must be ready to answer questions from employees, the media, local politicians and others about stages in the process, progress made and how candidates are treated throughout.

Make sure leaders and supervisors can handle the tough questions. In the past, it may have been easy to tell Employee X, “Nothing against you, but we just felt you weren’t ready.” Today’s hiring professionals must be ready to tell the employee clear, hard facts and supply constructive feedback about how he or she can be well-positioned for the future. A few ways leaders can make sure they’re ready to have these hard conversations with both candidates and constituents are to conduct training sessions and participate in role-plays, and prepare for all conversations with support documentation.

Acknowledge others left out of the process. Leaders shouldn’t forget valued employees who are not included in specific succession processes. They’ll have tough questions, too, and will want signals that they’ll eventually get their shot to move up. Working with them on development plans for potential future roles can help.

Richard Metheny is practice leader, solutions for exceptional leadership and vice president, human resources/chief people officer at Witt/Kieffer, an executive search firm. He can be reached at