Organization Best Practices – Succession Planning


Succession Planning involves preparing for the departure of key personnel, typically those in leadership roles, such as senior management, and most commonly those in the top executive spot such as the CEO, CFO, President, or Executive Director. For brevity, the term “CEO” will be used throughout the document, but it should be understood to represent any critical role in an organization.

The Purpose.

The purpose of Succession Planning is to ensure continuity of the organization’s performance and often its very survival. Succession Planning is done to ensure that if key people leave, the organization can continue to fulfill its goals and carry out day-to-day operations with minimal disruption. Succession Planning helps to facilitate a smooth leadership transition.

The Process.

The Succession Planning process involves identifying critical roles within the organization (e.g., CEO) and the major responsibilities fulfilled by these roles (e.g., interfacing with the public, decision-making, supervision, ethics, steward of the organizational vision and values, etc.). It involves identifying people already in the organization who can potentially fill these roles and preparing them to step into the vacant role, either temporarily or permanently. It may also involve setting out a recruitment process and describing desirable candidate qualities. A good Succession Planning process should take into account the strategic vision and objectives of the organization and identify how they will live on if key people depart. The Succession Plan should reinforce the organization’s goals and objectives and be aligned with the overall business strategy.


Succession planning is a necessary feature of healthy and effective for-profit or not-for-profit organizations. Leadership transition is a pivotal point in the life of an organization and can sometimes make or break it. It is strategically important to plan ahead for leadership departures because it often takes an unanticipated amount of time to find and establish a new person to take on such an important role. When Succession Planning has not occurred, or has not been conducted effectively, some of the more detrimental results can include:

o Disruptions in services, production, or productivity,

o Stalled critical projects,

o Decreased employee morale,

o Unclear organizational direction,

o Loss of critical knowledge,

o Competing interests or ideas stalling the replacement process and putting further strain on the organization.

Failure to have a Succession Plan can be detrimental to the bottom line. In for-profit organizations it can mean lost profits and in not-for-profit organizations it can mean decreased funding and program cuts. Lack of foresight and planning can also be detrimental to the incoming leader’s success, placing the organization in a cycle of displaced leadership that can be difficult to rebound from. Ultimately, an organization’s goals are difficult to fulfill without an appropriate Succession Plan.

Two Types of Succession Plans.

There are two general types of succession plans designed to minimize the vulnerability an organization can face when a key person leaves:

Planned Succession Plan. A Planned Succession Plan details the steps an organization will take when a critical person departs with notice (e.g., contracts expiring or retirement). Typically this will include how much notice the CEO must give, if and how s/he will be involved in the search for a successor, what knowledge needs to transferred and how, and whether there needs to be overlap between the outgoing and incoming CEO.

Emergency Succession Plan. An Emergency Succession Plan details the steps an organization will take if a critical person departs unexpectedly (e.g., due to illness or accident). In addition to all of the components of a Planned Succession Plan, it includes a detailed Communication Strategy including who will notify employees, stakeholders, and the media, and how the message will be delivered. In this case, the tone of the message will be critical. It is important to recognize that in emergency departures especially, people will likely feel sad about the event and also concerned about the future of the organization. These feelings must be acknowledged, and steps should be taken to help them grieve and to abate their fears. It is also necessary to detail who will be responsible for what within the organization so chaos is minimized. A critical feature of the Emergency Succession Plan is setting out guidelines detailing the circumstances under which it must be activated. The planners must define what constitutes an “emergency” and who is responsible for “calling it”. The planners must also outline the sequence of events that must occur in this emergency event, just like the plans you should have for any other emergency event such as a fire or technology crash.

Components of a Good Succession Plan.

A good Succession Plan outlines the steps needed to make sure leadership succession is managed as best as possible. It defines the critical factors and details the process that must be followed in order to fill the vacant position. Although no two Succession Plans are the same because every organization is a unique entity with a distinct culture, there are some common components of good Succession Plans. These will be addressed in the next post. 

What you can do now.

Here are some key questions that can help you get in the frame of mind necessary to address your organization’s succession needs:

o Do we address succession planning regularly? Do we make succession planning a part of the organization’s strategic direction?

o What are the critical components of this organization or project? What things, if absent or lost or stalled, would disrupt fulfillment of the organization’s goals?

o Who is responsible for these critical components? Is the necessary information detailed appropriately?

o Is there back-up if the critical person is unexpectedly absent? Is there someone else who can fill this person’s shoes, even only temporarily? If this happens, is how can we ensure that this person’s workload is increased as little as possible? Who will cover for them if they can’t perform their regular duties?

o Is there anyone with critical information that may be expected to leave at a predicted time? Consider contract dates, potential for retirement, maternity or paternity, etc.

o What needs to be done to close any gaps? Who should be responsible for planning how to close the gaps?

Answering these questions will set you on the right track to determining your organization’s succession planning needs.