HR Has Key Role to Play in Succession Planning

Author: Robert S. Teachout, XpertHR Legal Editor

December 19, 2022

Succession planning is something that nearly every organization acknowledges is important to their ongoing success, but often do not act on until it is too late. For instance, although a 2021 report by the Corporate Leadership Council found that 72% of organizations predict an uptick in leadership vacancies over the next three to five years, a study the same year by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 56% of organizations said they did not have a succession plan in place. Fortunately, this is a situation that HR leaders can help resolve.

In a recent XpertHR webinar, Succession Planning: Key to Protecting Your Business, Laci Loew, XpertHR Senior Global Analyst, HR Strategy & Insights, spoke about what succession planning is, its benefits and how HR can get it started in an organization.

"Succession planning is a long-term investment in a short-term world. Many find it challenging to devote attention to it before the time of need," Loew said, pointing out that those who make the investment reap many business and talent benefits, "And HR has a clear role in the SP process."

"HR has a clear role in the succession planning process. And that is one of supporting leadership through the process."

Laci Loew, XpertHR Senior Global Analyst, HR Strategy & Insights

When an organization is stuck at the start and has not made succession planning a priority, HR can get the ball rolling by making a strong business case that explains the benefits of succession planning and the costs of failing to plan. HR also should brief the key decision makers on the process involved. "The solution likely lies in an approach that melds the data showcasing the costs of ignoring it with people-centric approaches to executing the process," said Loew.

Once the decision has been made to engage in the succession planning process, success depends on the organization's senior leadership taking ownership and making it a business imperative to get the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time. And to do that, HR needs to step up to its critical role of supporting leadership through the process.

Loew explained that HR has several important tasks to perform to help make the planning and ongoing execution of succession planning a success, including:

  • Helping initiate and manage the scheduling and facilitation of the annual (or more frequent) talent review process;
  • Ensuring that succession planning tools are available for use in the talent reviews;
  • Using technology and dashboards to record talent review results;
  • Monitoring development plans of the high potential employees (HiPos), including upskilling and reskilling HiPos and providing cross-training opportunities; and
  • Communicating broadly and transparently across the organization about:
    • What the organization's key roles are (leader and non-leader)
    • Who has been identified as HiPos;
    • How to earn movement into HiPo status; and
    • How to stay a HiPo.


succession planning chart

In response to a webinar question, Loew explained how HR can support even a small or medium-sized business in implementing a succession planning process. An attendee asked about how to develop high potential employees in a small organization, noting that often such an employee may be the only person performing their current job, and has no bandwidth to cross train in another position due to already significant time demands.

Loew suggested that, in such circumstances, HR may propose using "learning in the flow of work" to provide the HiPo with the opportunities to cross train, learn new skills and gain needed experience. With this approach, HR should frequently review and assess the individual's assignments to ensure it is the highest priority work, and that it is going to impact the changing goals of the organization.

If such work includes areas where the HiPo needs additional learning, managers can have them "buddy up" with someone in the organization who has stronger skills in that area so they can observe and learn while that critical work is getting accomplished. "It's definitely not impossible," Loew commented, "but with that said, of course, you should expect that the learning is going to take a little bit longer."

Finally, Loew explained, a key driver to success in an organization (of any size) is how inclusive it is. The path forward to achieving that falls directly in HR's area of expertise and authority. It starts at the time of talent sourcing even before an employee is brought on, and continues into the hiring of individuals with diverse backgrounds and different leadership abilities, who bring with them an array of experiences.

An inclusive succession plan should also include learning and development that removes barriers that may exist for employees of diverse backgrounds, and create a culture of psychological safety where all employees feel comfortable bringing their whole and authentic selves to work. Doing so effectively prepares for a bias-free talent review process that serves to identify a diverse slate of HiPos enabled to perform to their greatest potential in an inclusive environment.