I’m a firm believer that there is a science to a lot of management. The reason there are books that provide guidance for managing better is because following the strategies and suggestions contained therein are often helpful, and we are continually learning more about people and how they work and what motivates them. But I have begun to think that succession planning is more art than science. That doesn’t make it less important to prioritize, it just makes it harder and requires more deliberation and practice. There are some solid tips that can help, but you’ll need to think a lot about it and begin to hone your instincts on this subject.
Succession planning is necessary in two different instances: either you need to plan to replace a subordinate, or you need to plan to replace yourself. And you should have a plan in mind for every employee you have, even if the plan is relatively simplistic. As the axiom goes, plans are worthless, but planning is essential. The situation will change often, and your plans will need updated too, but if you fail to plan you’ll be caught with a gap in your staff’s capabilities that could be devastating.
To start with, you will need to think about the strengths and weaknesses of your organization and your staff. A SWOT analysis will help with this by putting into words the things you think or feel about your current situation. Identifying hard skills, by which I mean technical skills like server administration or accounting, and plotting coverage for them is one thing, but think about the soft skills you’ll need to supplement in your staff as well. Succession planning for someone in a management role is much more challenging because you need to find a good fit for both the hard skills needed as well as the soft skills like leadership and time management.
There are three approaches for succession planning. For essential personnel, like a line manager, you may want to have all three planned, while for someone less essential it might be sufficient to just hire a replacement and have a regular hiring process. This is where the art of succession planning comes in: there are no rules for how to best prepare for a person to leave, and you can’t afford the time and energy to have a comprehensive plan for every individual. What’s more, no amount of documentation can make up for lost experience and expertise. Remember that a succession plan helps you get from the time someone announces they are leaving to the time when you have their replacement doing the job they vacated. The plan cannot replace a person, and it needs to be executed as quickly as possible, because you cannot leave a position vacant for an extended period of time without it negatively impacting your business.
Every search is different, and to some extent will rely on luck. You have lost someone with a specific skill-set, temperament, and training, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find an applicant that can replace them perfectly. Having an accurate job description and a good advertisement is important, and preparing those in advance will let you react quickly if someone announces their impending departure. As part of this process, you should talk regularly with your employees to make sure you understand exactly what it is they do in their day-to-day work. Because change comes so rapidly, staff will often pick up new duties, or their work will change over time, and job descriptions will get out of date. While having a description be broad is helpful for catching work under ambiguous bullet points, it will make hiring someone with the unique skills you need hard. Find out what people do, and make notes about those for future vacancy announcements.
One of the most important and helpful things for succession planning is having a staff that considers it as important as you do. You want your staff to help you keep their job descriptions up-to-date, to train one another on what they do, to document the processes they can, and to notify you as early as possible when and if they decide to leave your team. To achieve this, you need to communicate both overtly and subtly that people will not face retaliation for their decisions. There is often a concern that giving advanced notice before leaving employment will result in immediate termination, so make sure employees know that won’t happen. Have it documented in an employee handbook, and suggest the amount of time you would like to have before they leave. Keep this reasonable, though, which generally means two weeks. Asking for a month, or six months, isn’t realistic if someone already has another job offer.
By having regular conversations about job duties, and being understanding if duties have shifted, you communicate that you want people to be open and honest. Even if you’re dismayed that someone isn’t doing what you want or expect them to, or if you’re concerned that they’re doing things you didn’t know about, don’t react negatively in the moment. If you are truly upset or concerned, you might reframe the situation in the following ways:
- Are you focusing more on those tasks because that’s where you’d like to see your career go? Maybe we can partner on that.
- I really appreciate you picking up these extra duties, but I want to be sensitive to your time and stress. Maybe we can redistribute some work so you don’t burn out.
- Are you still taking care of these other tasks? Is someone else taking care of them? I just want to make sure we work as a team to get everything done. Maybe we could talk about them during the next team meeting?
The goal is to work with your employees to find a solution that’s amicable for everyone. You don’t want to react negatively and communicate through tone, body language, or words that you’re upset that they shared with you or that they’re in trouble for not doing something. Remember, if something isn’t going right, there’s a good chance the problem is with the system, not with the employee.
Cross-training within your team provides value along three lines:
- It helps your staff stretch themselves and discover skills they didn’t know they had
- It creates opportunities to deliver value when a staff person has unused bandwidth–if their regular job duty is lacking work at the moment, they can be working on something outside their normal duties if they’ve been trained on it
- It ensures at least a basic level of functionality and support if someone leaves the team
Training has some major challenges, though, especially when dealing with highly specialized or skilled staff. If you have someone who is an expert and is excellent at what they do, they have likely gotten to that point through years of learning and experience. Anything they learn at that point is being built on a well-established foundation, and other staff may lack that foundation. This means that other people will have trouble learning the specialized things you need them to know to ensure continuity if your specialist leaves.
When considering training as part of your succession planning, recognize that it has limitations. You can’t expect an administrative assistant or a technical writer to take over server administration, just like you can’t expect a programmer to become a successful sales person overnight. All of these jobs require particular skill sets that take time to master, and cross-training can only take someone so far. But you can absolutely have people cross-train for related skills, such as having a technical writer try writing software requirements, or a sales person learn how to do invoicing.
In addition, be careful of forcing people to cross-train on subjects in which they have no interest or which don’t suit them. I once worked with a manager who recognized the over-specialization of his team. His plan to address this was to re-assign work duties based on people’s strengths and weaknesses: he would identify where someone was weakest, and assign them to do something that would force them to become stronger in that area. At face value, it seems like this might help people train into areas where they need to grow, but it ignores the human aspect of the equation. Within that team, people were doing the work that interested them most and for which they were best suited. By assigning them to the work that interested them least and for which they were least suited, not only would it destroy all momentum the team had built, it would also cause them to lose interest, have decreased morale, and start finding reasons to not do work.
A good rule of thumb is to ask people what interests them, and/or make suggestions of work they can do that is outside their area whenever they have some time available. If they reply that they couldn’t do the type of work you are suggesting, ask why they think they wouldn’t be able to. Make this conversation informal and have it in a group setting where other team members can participate. Invite the team into the conversation so they can offer their own suggestions and assistance. The goal is to build a stronger team that has a culture of supporting one another and working together, and cross-training can be a great way to build that while also contributing towards your succession planning. A team that is comfortable with cross-training and supporting one another in this manner will also be more comfortable when a new team member comes online, and they can include that new person in their regular cross-training conversations.
One aspect of succession planning can include writing documentation and templates to cover the work that would be done by the person who has left. Documentation is absolutely invaluable, and if you invest the time in writing it as systems and procedures are developed, it can be a powerful contribution to both your regular business as usual and to filling gaps when someone leaves.
Be aware that documentation cannot replace an expert, though, and you shouldn’t expect it to. You have to balance the business value of documentation against its utility. Ultimately, you hire someone with a particular set of skills and experience for a reason, and no matter how detailed a document or template, it can’t make up for years of experience. Write documentation for the things that can be documented, and focus on those tasks that do not require analysis.
To give a practical example from my own experience, writing a document that details how to change a password, add a shared printer to a computer, or configure an email client is well worth the investment of time and will be helpful for a long time. Writing documentation about how to build and configure a server and application for a specific purpose is less worthwhile though. Between operating system and application updates, the documentation will quickly be out of date, and too much expertise and knowledge are needed to respond to edge cases and problems that might crop up.
For processes that require expertise and analysis, it’s still helpful to have documentation in the form of user stories, requirements, and goals. But I’ve encountered managers who want documentation that would let someone with no prior experience walk through the process and have a finished product, and for certain tasks, that isn’t feasible. So much time will be spent updating and maintaining documentation that the business value is negatively impacted too significantly.
Remember that your succession plan is to get you from the point that one of your employees leaves to the time when you can replace them. In this case, that means that documentation cannot replace a person.
What if my succession plan fails?
My last succession plan failed miserably. I had been grooming someone to take my place for three years, and he left for a wonderful position that suited him even better. I realized that I had put all my eggs in the Training basket, and that the basket in question was a single person. It was a terrible plan, in retrospect.
Succession plans will often fail; remember, planning is essential, but plans are useless. You’ll have people leave you didn’t expect to, your budget will be cut and you won’t be able to rehire, or your documentation will be found insufficient or altogether absent. This is where the art of planning and management comes in. By having thought through the process and planned as best you’re able, you’ll be better situated than you otherwise would have been. And the more experienced you become as a manager, the better you will respond to having your plans disrupted.
For my part, I quickly began writing documentation for the parts of my job that could be documented, and I wrote anecdotes and examples for the analytical things that I couldn’t transmit through documentation. In situations in the past where we simply lost budget–a staff person left, and we weren’t able to refill their position–we cross-trained and found ways to support each other better to become a more efficient team that distributed work more. You do your best to manage, and a good guide for that is the agile manifesto. “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Put people first, both your team and your customers, and put them before process, tools, and plans.
Your plan is not a person. Your tasks are not people. You will have to find a way to get things done while taking care of people, and the best way to do that is to take it to the team. Work with your team to figure out how best to proceed, cover the job that needs done, and meet the needs of the customers.
As long as your succession plan is to work as a collaborative team to get the job done, and your team is fully supportive of each other and of you, you’ll never truly fail. The best succession plan you can make is one where your team are all dedicated to the same goal of serving each other and the goals of you team or company.