Are You Prepared for Succession Events?


Succession planning is another one of those great Human Resources topics that are hot in the minds of organizations today. However, despite its importance, most companies don’t know how to go about it. Succession planning is not just an HR responsibility—it is the responsibility of the entire company. It is something that every employee in your organization needs to be a part of.

Ultimately, succession planning is simple. It involves identifying positions and duties that in the future will need to be done by someone else and creating an action plan for who or how those duties will be done in the future. Recently, I was asked if we plan for positions or people when it comes to succession planning. The truth is you must plan for both. It is people who leave the organization, but it is the duties of the position that the organization needs to ensure that is done in the future.

Types of succession planning

How does a company do succession planning? What steps can you take to get a solid plan in the works? First, you must understand that succession planning involves two different types of planning: expected events and unexpected events.

Planning for retirements or “known events” is what most think of when talking about succession planning, but that is only one piece. The hardest thing to plan for is those unexpected events. Employees leave for all different kinds of reasons: new jobs, staying home with kids, health issues, and sometimes no reason at all. These events can be a challenge to navigate.

Expected events

Let’s start by talking about expected events. As the workforce ages, businesses must be aware and plan for future retirements. The easiest part is to review your data. I recommend an annual review of your workforce. As you do this you will need to identify employees and positions that fit one or more of these criteria:

  1. The employee(s) is 55 and older and,
  2. Their position has only 1 or 2 employees or,
  3. The employee(s) completes functions that no one else is trained to do

Those individuals you identified that meet the criteria above are what I call your critical known retirements. These are areas where an organization is at a higher risk of a large amount of knowledge leaving the company. A heavier focus is usually needed in your planning process for those that fall into this category. Planning will still be needed for the rest of the 55-plus group, but when others are already trained on the duties, this lessens your work.

Unexpected events

As we dive into “unexpected events,” this is where the focus changes more to the positions and duties within your organization. Like “expected events” you need to start by reviewing your workforce. This time age isn’t a factor. For an “unexpected event” any employee could leave at any time for any reason.

That means you should be identifying jobs and positions that have sole contributors and those functions that only one person completes. You also want to identify positions and the duties within each role that are critical to the success of the organization. A common position that organizations succession plan for is the CEO. It is a critical function in every organization, with only one contributor in the role.

I often get asked how I plan for employee departure when I don’t know who is even considering leaving? Or wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a way to maintain my staff instead of planning for their resignation? It is my belief that by planning for departures, you are planning for that employee to grow. Even if they don’t leave the company, they may leave that position or take on new responsibilities. So to these questions, I respond with, “how can you expect your staff to do new or more things if you don’t plan for others to take on some of the responsibilities that are bogging them down today? How can they grow if you don’t help them gain capacity?”

Drafting a succession plan

By this point, you have your list of employees, positions, and duties that you believe need your attention. If you have not gotten your staff involved up to this point, you should. Check with them to confirm your list of positions and duties is complete. There are a lot of key tasks that people do that we forget about. Every business has a number of things that just seem to magically get done, but trust someone is taking care of the details. We don’t often figure out the depth of those tasks until someone leaves, thus it’s critical to bring your employees into the process.

Once you have your list of people and of job duties that will need to be transitioned, you will start to build your plan for who will take on these responsibilities and when. What should be included in your plan? A plan should include deciding what will be done with the responsibilities in the future. Do you need to continue them? If you do, who or how will the work be reassigned? What is your plan for training someone new? What is the timeline for training and transitioning the work? You may need to determine other factors such as who will oversee the staff, who will be the business decision-maker, or who be responsible for operations.

Get a list of job responsibilities

Start your planning by having each staff member document a list of their job tasks. They should identify which ones are critical to the operations. Your management team should review the list and confirm the priorities based on the business. You will want to survey people around each role, what questions would they have if a member of their team left? Let’s use the receptionist as an example. If he or she left, one might ask who will lock and unlock the building from then on. Who will cover the front desk? Who will take care of the outgoing mail?

Understanding what questions may come up and what the answers are prior to a departure will help you better prepare. This list should help you update your firm’s job descriptions. Remember, a job description is a high-level view of your job duties and for this assignment you want them to really list all the tasks they do. The tasks they do once a day, a week, a month, a quarter, and even a year.

Ensure documentation exists and is up-to-date 

The next step is an easy one now that you have the list of job tasks by position. Have your staff document standard operating procedures for all their responsibilities. This may seem unnecessary, but properly documenting job tasks not only allows you to have a step-by-step procedure for how to complete a task if you have an unplanned departure, but it also helps create training material that you can use for cross-training successors and new team members.

For larger teams with multiple people doing the same thing, you can assign the task of documenting the procedure to one person, but you should have others review to ensure you do not have any one-off tasks that you missed.

While you will want to do this for all positions, use your list of employees and start the process with the known retirements and with those that hold critical positions. You want to make sure your organization captures the information and knowledge of those individuals prior to a departure.

Change the plan as needed

One of the biggest mistakes in succession planning is having a one-and-done program. Succession planning requires diligence. Once you create your plan, you need to review it on a regular basis and update it to keep it current. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all plan, so you may need to tweak your process to fit your organization, but the key is to start somewhere, document your processes and remain diligent to be ready for a succession event.


  • Amber Overla

    Amber Overla is an HR professional with over 20 years’ experience in a variety of different industries. She serves as Vice President of Organizational Resource Development for CU*Answers. She is responsible for leading CU*Answers’ overall human resources strategy, talent acquisition, leadership development, diversity and inclusion, organizational design and cultural development, employee education and development, compensation and benefits, HR operations and technology, employee relations, and security.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *