Successful Succession Planning


Unexpected turnover is one of the most disruptive and costly parts of doing business. Though you have two weeks’ notice to start finding a replacement, usually, the difficulty of finding this replacement and the time that it takes to find a good person for the job, really depend on the job. The negative effects of a lengthy vacancy will also depend on the job in question and how important that job is to operations at your company.

Jobs that require advanced qualifications or experience are becoming harder and harder to fill on the fly. If the right person for the job has at least 5 years of direct experience in the position or needs an advanced degree in their field, then filling that job is going to require a whole lot more time and attention than an entry or mid-level position.

While you may be tempted to say “well, obviously it’s going to be harder to hire a data scientist than a sales person,” you should really ask yourself if your company approaches the job of filling these two jobs differently.

A one-size-fits-all approach to hiring can work if you only have one type of job to fill, but that probably doesn’t describe your hiring needs. Additionally, your hiring needs are only going to grow as time goes on. According to a survey from CareerBuilder, “more than one in five employees (21 percent) are pledging to leave their current employers in 2016, a 5 percent increase since last year.”

Today’s most in-demand professionals are aware of how many options they have, and want to choose a job that will match up with their career trajectory. What this means for employers, is that you need to understand the ultimate career desires of your employees, especially your most valuable employees. If you don’t understand the 5 year plan of your key employees, and where your company fits into that plan, then you will be put into an awkward position when it comes time for them to move on.

Though you may have hired the person who is moving on, you should never assume that finding their replacement will be simple or routine. The unemployment rate is holding steady at 4.9%, which, when you consider the expansion of the “gig economy,” is actually very close to full employment. This means that, depending on the job you need to fill, you could be looking at a difficult, extended candidate search.

And that’s not good.

According to a study from CareerBuilder, jobs that remain open for more than 30 days are likely to remain open for multiple months. “For businesses that fail to fill job openings within the first month, there is a 57% chance that the position will remain open for three months or more. Approximately two-fifths (44%) of jobs in the US are filled within 30 days.”

So, what’s the worst case scenario? Who are the people that you don’t want to think about losing? Which jobs will cause the most chaos when left vacant?

Succession planning will benefit your hiring for every position, but it is most important to plan for the most important positions at your company. These jobs will have more specific, advanced skill requirements than other positions, making the supply of qualified, available candidates, much smaller. Given the increased difficulty of finding hires for key positions, you should anticipate the need to hire for these jobs and takes steps to prepare for the candidate search. If you can learn of upcoming vacancies in advance and prepare for your need to hire, you will be able to replace your most valuable employees with people who are just as up to the job.

Successful Succession Planning

Successful succession planning begins by identifying the positions that will be most harmful if left vacant.

  • What are the 5 positions that would leave the day-to-day operations in shambles?
  • What are the 5 positons that would leave strategic planning or leadership damaged?
  • What are the 5 positions that would put a halt to major or specialized company projects?

Once you have determined which employees and functional roles you can’t do without, you’ve identified the positions that you need to plan for. Succession planning begins with this prioritization, but it really starts when you start meeting with the employees in these positions. By conducting annual retention interviews, you can learn how long your most valuable employees are going to stay at your company and begin the candidate search before they’ve left you in the lurch.

Though you should pursue traditional candidate sourcing practices, you should not bank on job boards to bring you the hire that you need. While you might source some great candidates from a job board, there are no guarantees of this. Additionally, the candidates that you want for your advanced positions don’t spend their days combing through job boards.

Given the advanced notice that retention interviews will give you, you will be able to reach out to your referral network and candidate pipeline when replacing valued employees. These candidate sources provide you with a higher quality of candidate, but can take longer to work for you, making them perfect for replacing employees who give you a big head start.

By understanding the goals of your employees and anticipating their departure, you can set yourself up to make a great hire, without skipping a beat.

Successful Succession Planning:

  • Conduct Retention Interviews
  • Update Job Description
  • Reach out to your Referral Network
  • Tap your Candidate Pipeline

Conduct Retention Interviews

Though it’s called a retention interview, your main goal during this interview is to get the honest truth about the 5 year plan of your most valuable employees. Retention interviews should be conducted on an annual basis for all employees and a semi-annual basis for your people in mission critical positions.

In your retention interviews, you want to learn about what your most valued employees want to do in the future:

  • Do they want to be working the same job or managing someone who does their current job?
  • Do they want to build the skills they currently use, or learn an entirely new skill?
  • Do they want to continue working in your industry, or go in an entirely new direction?
  • Do they have a step-by-step plan, or just an end goal that they hope to reach somehow?

If you can get your employees to open up about their intended career path, you will be able to see exactly how your company fits into that plan. You will also be able to propose new areas of fit with your company that the employee hasn’t even considered yet. No matter what their plan is, replacing your most valuable employees will always be easier if you have months to do it instead of weeks.

Seamless succession, however, can only be accomplished if your employees are comfortable telling you that they’re planning on leaving your company. This can be an awkward subject, and some employees will believe that you’re trying to trick them or that they’ll be fired if they say they have a planned “quit by” date.

We all have career goals, and it can help to share some of your own career goals when conducting retention interviews. Admit it, you’re not planning on doing your current job forever. Neither are they. Neither is anybody, really. By establishing this baseline of transparency, your employees will feel much more comfortable discussing their career plans. Additionally, the low-pressure approach that you apply to these interviews may help them to see your company as a bigger part of their future than they’d planned.

It could be that their main goal is to advance to a position of prominence within your company. It could be that your company is closely related to their career goals, but they plan to be in a more closely fitting job next year. It could be that their job is just a job to them, and they’re already looking for one that is a better fit for their ultimate professional goals.

The point is, you won’t know until you ask, and they won’t be fully honest unless you make it perfectly clear that “I’m planning on quitting in two months,” is just as acceptable an answer as “I want to work for your company for the rest of my life.”

Wouldn’t you rather have two months’ notice to find a replacement instead of two weeks?

You’d probably appreciate an earlier notice. You’d probably rather they didn’t quit in the first place. However, no matter how much extra notice you get that a valued employee is leaving, there really is no denying the value of this grace period. As we said, jobs that remain open for 30 days or more are likely to remain open for multiple months. The advanced notice that you can get from regularly conducting retention interviews will give you the time you need to make hires from your referral network and candidate pipeline.

By conducting retention interviews with your most talented employees, you can see these problems coming in advance and prepare to make a hire and/or attempt to make a counteroffer.

Update the Job Description

Once you know which jobs you’re going to have to hire for in the future, you can start preparing your job description for the candidate search. Technology is constantly improving and changing the way we do work. When you know that you’re losing an employee, it’s a great time to evaluate: their position, the way it’s changed and the way that it’s going to change in the future.

Start with your old job description. How long ago did you make a hire based on this job description? Does the day-to-day still match up with what’s described? Which skills and tools are now under or over emphasized in the old job description? Is there anything about this job that has changed dramatically since you last hired for it? Do you need the next person in this job to take on more or different work than when you last hired?

Once you’ve compared the current and anticipated demands of the positon with your old job description, update it to be the most engaging, appealing version of the truth possible. Though you don’t want to embellish anything, a good job description is one that is both informative and appealing.

You’ll be distributing this job description to the referrals of your employees and the pros in your candidate pipeline, so it has to do more than describe. A great job description reads as a great job opportunity to the perfect person for the job, so nailing this step is important in getting the most from your referrals and candidate pipeline. Make sure that you’re presenting the parts of the job that are engaging from a professional perspective: the technology they’ll use, the projects they’ll work on and the clients they’ll work with. You want them to get excited by the work, not the salary or the perks you’re offering.

If you can create a job description that resonates with skilled, engaged professionals in your industry, sourcing from your referral program and candidate pipeline will yield much better results.

Reach out to your Referral Network

Referrals can be one of your best candidate sources, if you can engage your employees in the referral process. If you don’t engage your employees in finding you great referrals, however, you probably won’t be getting any great referrals.

Now, many companies incentivize their referral programs with prizes or bonuses for employees whose referrals result in hires, but this will only take you so far. Rewards will definitely help, but your employees need to be interested in referrals for the same reason you are: making a great hire.

Your employees want you to make a great hire as badly as you do, so let them know that they can be one of the biggest assets to your hiring. There are many studies that prove how employee referrals are one of the best candidate sources, and the reasons are many and great. Referred candidates can be hired for faster and cheaper than any other source. Referral hires are also likely to have a longer tenure at your company and people who successfully make referrals are also more likely to stay at your company for longer.

So you’re convinced, your referral program can bring you great hires. But how do you get your employees searching for their best professional contacts? While rewards for successful referrals will help and should be used, the best way to incentivize referrals, is to stress that you’re looking for the highest quality hire for your employees to work with.

Everyone who works with the hire will depend on them or report to them in their daily life, so remind everyone of this fact. Tell your team that you want to make the best hire possible, and that you need their help to do it. Offer them the chance to choose their next co-worker or superior, and give them your updated job description to distribute to their professional and social networks. If you can encourage your employees to actively share your job description with their contacts and networks, your inbox will be full of the best referrals that your employees have to offer.

Tap your Candidate Pipeline

After you’ve gotten your employees excited about finding the right person for your imminently opening job, you should look to your candidate pipeline to see if any of your contacts are a good fit for the job.

Your candidate pipeline is a list of qualified professionals who know your company and who you have a working relationship with. The contacts in your candidate pipeline can come from connections you make at conferences, connections from previous jobs or even connections you made with candidates during a previous hiring cycle . It doesn’t really matter where you came into contact with these people, but it does matter what sort of relationship you have with them.

In order for a contact in your candidate pipeline to be useful in your succession planning, you need to know that they:

  • Are qualified for the job in question.
  • Are available to a job offer or open to one.
  • Have a relationship with you and your company.

If you aren’t sure about one of these things, then you should reach out to the contact in question and find out. Send them an email asking how they’re doing and what they’re up to:

  • What is their current job?
  • How do they like it?
  • Is it the sort of job that fits in with their career path, or could they do better?
  • How does your opening job fit in with their career path?

If they’re in their dream job, you have very little chance of hiring them. If, however, the job you want them for is more aligned with their career goals, you have a much better chance of hiring them. Just like getting this data from your employees, getting your contacts to tell you how well your job fits with their career requires transparency above all else.

You don’t want it to feel like you’re selling them on your open job. You want it to feel like an information session, one in which the two of you are evaluating what the other has to offer. This is the point at which you should double-check their qualifications against your updated job description. It could turn out that, while they were qualified to do this job, new work has been assigned to the position that is outside of their skill range. It could also turn out that this job just doesn’t seem interesting to them.

The key here, is getting to the truth. A candidate may not be swayed from their current job by the job you’re currently showing them, but they could be interested by another job opening at your company. By maintaining relationships with your candidate contacts and updating your information on them, you can start to hone in on what each contact is looking for in a job and present them with the opportunities that most closely match their criteria. Though they may not be right for this round of hiring, maintaining and strengthening your connections with pros in your candidate pipeline will increase the chances of making a great hire from this source.

By using retention interviews to learn of turnover in advance, you will have enough time to plan the succession of your most important positions. In addition, this advanced notice will give you the time you need to spread your job description to referrals and to the contacts in your candidate pipeline.


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