Building a Robust Succession Management Process

Updated on April 1, 2012

By Michael A. Couch

In a 2011 survey by Right Management, 91% of participating companies indicated that they had made some attempt at succession management but only 9% had a formal process.  Seventy-Five percent acknowledged that they needed help to make their succession management process stronger.

If an organization counts itself in the 75%, what can be done to build a more robust process?

Build the Business Case.  Succession management is no different from any key business process.  It will more likely create value if the business case is firmly established from the start.  Build a Value Map – a map that builds a clear linkage from key business goals to potential outcomes from SM that will help leverage the goal to the components or capabilities of the success process that will create the required outcome.

Build Leadership Commitment.  Leadership commitment is a hallmark of any successful change management effort.  In a 1997 HBR article, John Kotter called this “forming a powerful guiding coalition”, a critical mass to assure that something worthwhile is accomplished.  This is a natural outgrowth of the business case.  The “what’s in for the organization” and “what’s in it for me” should be clear at this point.  HR leadership plays an important role but the key is building commitment with line managers.  As Kotter also said, “No matter how capable or dedicated the staff head, groups without strong line leadership never achieve the power that is required.”

Build A Robust Process.  The value map will define the key components of the succession management process.  It will also assure that the process always has a strong link to business strategy, another hallmark of a robust process.  The most often cited requirement for an effective SM process is a valid and reliable method of assessing talent.  The best assessment practices are candid, facilitated, and behavior-based team discussions that do not require preparation or paperwork and do not depend solely on a single manager’s assessment.

Build A Differentiated Process.  Differentiated in two respects – Not all jobs/roles are the same and not all talent is the same.  The SM process should clearly differentiate Pivotal roles from other roles in the business.  Pivotal roles generate wealth for the firm and value for customers.  They are usually a small percentage of total jobs and often require talent that is a rare commodity.  There is also a wide variance in performance – not everyone can do them well.  Talent planning for pivotal roles must be spot-on.

The talent assessment process will distinguish the capability of employees.  How employees with different capabilities are handled must also be differentiated.  The past CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy, stated in a 2009 NY Times article that  “Not everybody is created equal, and it’s important for companies to identify those high potentials and treat them differently, accelerate their development and pay them more.  That process is so incredibly important to developing first-class leadership in a company

Build Accountability and Follow Up.  So the organization has a clear business case, committed leadership and a robust process that differentiates.  That will all be for naught unless talent action plans are created for which managers are held accountable.  As a plus, it is very difficult to have candid talent discussions (See Building a Robust Process) and just walk away without discussing ,”OK, now what do we do?”  The company will have a clear picture of talent strengths and gaps.  Now it needs to build a prioritized action plan that will significantly improve the talent picture.  A 2010 survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (I4CP) showed that leaders in high-performing organizations are more likely to have talent specific goals and objectives.

Build Talent Data Into Business Intelligence.  The data that flows from an SM process can be managed with spreadsheets.  Pivot tables are a great way to slice, dice and filter the data to answer different talent questions, measure the process effectiveness or track progress.

    • How many pivotal roles have ready-now, high potential back-ups?
    • How many high-potentials have been in their present job more than 3 years?
    • What % of pivotal roles were filled from within?

The list could be endless.  The Value Map will help focus the analysis.

Tracking the SM data in relational, multi-dimensional business intelligence software offers an even more powerful means of analysis.  Better yet, there are a host of integrated HRIS/Employee Performance Management/Talent Management systems available.  It is one of the fastest growing HR Technology tools.

As president of Michael Couch & Associates, Inc., Michael A. Couch likes to help businesses grow.  He made a career out of improving the performance of organizations as an internal consultant, a business executive and now in his own consulting practice, Michael Couch & Associates Inc. (

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