Succession Planning

Succession Planning

Succession Planning

A succession plan, simply put, is a component of good HR planning and management. Succession planning acknowledges that staff will not be with an organization indefinitely and it provides a plan and process for addressing the changes that will occur when they leave. Most succession planning focuses on the most senior manager - the executive director, however, all key positions should be included in the plan. Key positions can be defined as those positions that are crucial for the operations of your organization and, because of skill, seniority and/or experience, will be hard to replace.

Whenever size and resources permit, a succession plan should involve nurturing and developing employees from within an organization. Employees who are perceived to have the skills, knowledge, qualities, experience and the desire can be groomed to move up to fill specific, key positions. Organizations should:

  • Assess their current and future needs based on either their strategic plan, goals and objectives, or priority programs and projects
  • Match these to the capabilities of the existing workforce
  • Develop a plan to manage the gaps that will arise when individuals in key positions leave or are promoted

The plan will generally include a combination of training and developing existing staff, and external recruitment.

To avoid a potential constructive dismissal or other claim, include a statement to specify that a succession plan is not a guarantee of a position; rather it represents a developmental plan to prepare an individual should opportunities arise within the organization.


Why is succession planning important?

The benefits of good succession planning include:

  • A means of ensuring the organization is prepared with a plan to support service continuity when the executive director, senior managers or key people leave
  • A continuing supply of qualified, motivated people (or a process to identify them), who are prepared to take over when current senior staff and other key employees leave the organization
  • An alignment between your organization's vision and your human resources that demonstrates an understanding of the need to have appropriate staffing to achieve strategic plans
  • A commitment to developing career paths for employees which will facilitate your organization's ability to recruit and retain top-performing employees and volunteers
  • An external reputation as an employer that invests in its people and provides opportunities and support for advancement
  • A message to your employees that they are valuable

The absence of a succession plan can undermine an organization's effectiveness and its sustainability. Without a succession planning process, an organization may not have a means of ensuring that the programs and services that are crucial to its operation are sustained beyond the tenure of the individual currently responsible for them.


A mid-sized arts organization lost an employee who had been hosting, organizing and managing a major fundraising event for a number of years. When he left, staff knew very little about how it was put together and there was no operations manual documenting the event. This very important event ended up being abandoned by the organization because they simply did not know how to run it.

 A succession plan ensures that there are qualified and motivated employees (or a means of recruiting them) who are able to take over when the executive director or other key people leave an organization. It also demonstrates to stakeholders such as clients, funders, employees and volunteers that the organization is committed to and able to provide excellent programs and services at all times, including during times of transition.

Example 2:

A mid-sized organization relied heavily on the corporate memory, skills and experience of a longtime employee. In her final position, she was responsible for office administration including payroll, budget monitoring and the organization's major annual fundraising event. Over the course of her employment she held a variety of positions and had a very good understanding of the organization's operations and history.

Her unexpected death was both an emotional blow and a wake up call to her colleagues. Everything she had known about the organization was "in her head." While discussions had occurred regularly concerning the need to document this information and to pass this knowledge on to others - this had never happened. The organization was able to regroup and survive the transition but the employees experienced high levels of stress as they struggled to determine what needed to happen when. A great deal of time and effort was spent recreating systems and processes and even then, some things fell through the cracks resulting in the need to rebuild relationships with supporters.


Who is responsible for succession planning?

Both the board and the executive director have pivotal roles to play in succession planning.

The board is responsible for doing succession planning for the executive director position. The board hires the executive director to ensure it has a skilled manager at the helm to implement the organization's mission and vision. It is therefore very important for boards to spend some time reflecting on what they would do if, or when, the executive director leaves. All too often, boards find that they are unprepared for such an occurrence and are left scrambling to quickly replace that person. There are many examples of an executive director leaving only to have the organization fall into disarray: funders withdraw resources, and other key staff members leave due to lack of effective leadership. Even when provided with adequate notice, boards sometimes find themselves in the position of having to scramble to find an interim solution.

The executive director is responsible for ensuring a succession plan is in place for other key positions in the organization. These will likely be developed with help from the management team with input from implicated employees.


 What are some challenges to effective succession planning?

Some challenges to succession planning are:

  • Size of the organization : Some organizations have so few positions that they may not have the ability to offer opportunities for advancement; employees with the potential and the desire to advance their careers may move to larger organizations as a result
  • Lack of financial resources : Employees may leave for better salaries and benefits offered in other workplaces
  • The nature of funding : As more and more organizations depend on project funding as opposed to core funding, there are fewer core staff members available to take up positions in the organizations
  • Project staff come and go and may not be seen to be part of the talent pool available to organizations
  • In some cases, senior leaders are staying on in their positions, despite the fact that the skills needed for the job may have changed or they are no longer making a meaningful and productive contribution to the organization
  • Indiscriminate inclusion of employees in the succession plan including those who are disinterested, unmotivated or lack capacity to advance
  • Inadequate training and development resulting in an employee who is not prepared for a promotion
  • A plan that does not promote people in a timely fashion, leading potential successors to leave the organization to seek new opportunities
  • Poor communication resulting in confusion and turmoil within the organization as staff speculate about what the succession plan really is
  • Potential candidates for promotion cannot be guaranteed that they will be promoted; a lot depends on timing and need of the organization


Ideas for recruiting for other key positions

The following ideas can be incorporated into your succession plan for key positions in the organization.

 Look to other organizations for exceptional employees:

New employees are often found in other voluntary and non-profit sector organizations. While some may view this as poaching, the reality is that employees who aren't being challenged or aren't happy will leave the organization for a better opportunity. In some cases, employees have been known to leave for a position in another organization but return years later with new experiences and skills. Helping to keep exceptional employees in the sector by allowing them to move around to develop their careers should be seen not as a loss for individual organizations, but as a gain for the capacity of the sector.

An innovative approach would be to develop a pool of candidates with other voluntary and non-profit organizations and develop a rotational program to allow key employees to move from one organization to the next. This approach would ensure key individuals remain challenged and motivated while a group of non-profit organizations all benefit from the expertise.

Look to your organization's volunteers:

There may be board members or volunteers in other positions within the organization with the talent, knowledge and experience who can effectively make the transition to a paid position.

Look to project staff:

 As a result of a shift from core funding to project-based funding, there are more and more project staff who move from organization to organization with short contracts. These people will often have gained information about your organization's operations and could move seamlessly into a core staff position.

Look to consultants:

While most consultants may prefer to stay in their line of business, there are those who would like to become staff members. 

Develop and implement the plan:

Based on the evaluation and on the requirements of your strategic plan, identify the key person or people you will want to develop and nurture for the future, the position you would like to groom them for, and the timeframe required to prepare them. Consider different ways of developing your employees like: self-development, books/journals, mentor programs, special project work.

Identify the career paths that the selected individuals should be following. Customize the path to fit the individual's abilities and talents by developing an action plan. The plan must be dynamic -- able to be changed as the individual's and the organization's needs change. It must also consider the specific needs, learning style and personality of the individuals involved in order to be effective.

Formalize education, training, coaching, mentoring and assessment activities. The mix of activities included within the action plan should be linked to timelines and specific outcomes.

Move people into different areas for experience and training before they are needed in critical positions. Have individuals job-shadow for an agreed upon period of time to give the successor a real sense of the responsibilities and to allow the organization the chance to determine whether the individual really is suited for the new position.

Monitor and manage the plan

As people leave and new people assume their responsibilities, the plan will have to be updated to identify the next person to be groomed for promotion and the requirements of his or her individual action plan. For organizations that engage in an annual (or regular) strategic planning process, the succession plan should be included in that discussion.

Be prepared to address issues such as concerns of staff who have not been selected for career advancement. Ensure alternative paths are identified to allow all employees who are interested in career enhancement to be given some type of professional development opportunity. Professional development can include such wide ranging activities as formal education and training, workshops and seminars as well as less formal learning opportunities such as the chance to represent the organization at a consultation.

Recognize that no matter how well you plan, something can still happen which the succession plan doesn't address. For example, you may have dutifully trained a "second" only to have that person leave. Even though there may be no one able to fill the breach immediately, the succession plan will ensure that there is a process for you to follow in filling the position.


Tips for successful succession planning

Secure senior management and board support for a succession planning process. This gives employees and staff an understanding of how important succession planning is to the organization.

Review and update your succession plan regularly. This ensures you reassess your hiring needs and determine where the employees identified in the succession plan are in their development.

Develop procedure manuals for essential tasks carried out by key positions. Include step-by-step guidelines.

Adequate time should be provided to prepare successors. The earlier they are identified, the easier it is on the individual to be advanced and on other employees within your organization who will know whether certain options are available to them.

Understand that your succession plan will be a unique reflection of your organization. Succession plans are as different from each other as the organizations for which they are developed.