Ten Tips Organizations Should Consider to
Implement a Successful Succession Plan

OPM has estimated that by the end of 2015, more than 50% of the 7,746 senior executives in place at the beginning of 2011 will have left government, taking with them key institutional knowledge and critical skills. 

A large percentage of the federal workforce is also expected to retire in the next few years as the Baby Boomer generation ages. (See "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes:" The Elusive Retirement Tsunami )

These factors combined highlight an important need for agencies to ensure they have strong succession plans in place to prepare for the potential "brain drain" in the government's workforce as the baby boomers start to leave government service and a younger generation takes their place.

Succession planning is not new. It is an organizational imperative, the process by which an organization validates itself by putting into place a formal or informal systematic plan that meets organizational needs. Specifically, a succession plan identifies key positions, and cultivates leadership skills of qualified high-potential personnel to ensure leadership continuity. Succession planning is a process that is critical to the short-term and long-term success of any organization. Succession planning and management help organizations fulfill their missions by preparing for job vacancies.

The absence of a succession plan puts any organization at risk. Consider the following situation: Your organization has been confronted with a major catastrophe and you are suddenly crippled by significant personnel shortages, including the loss of two frontline supervisors, three mid-level managers, and five senior managers. What do you do now? You did not plan for these losses. You have no structured succession plan in place; you have not identified key positions in the organization, nor have you identified prospective replacements or cultivated leadership skills of potential successors.

There is no “one size fits all” succession planning process. Succession plans must be developed according to an organization's business needs and priorities. Each organization has its very own unique set of operating and business needs that are reflective of its values, principles and practices.

Regardless of the type of industry or the stage of development of the organization, succession planning is critical to the longevity of any organization. Here are ten steps an organization should take to develop and implement a sustainable succession plan:


  1. The executive leadership and management must first admit that there exists a critical need for a systematic formal or informal succession plan; they must be proactive and plan in advance for who will fill a vacancy; ensure that the workforce is aligned with the organization’s overall strategic plan and goals; create a consensus for making it a priority to build a system capable of identifying and cultivating leadership skills of qualified high-potential employees; and encourage employee commitment. 
  2. Work with a credible consulting firm to assist with focusing the scope of the succession plan; create mechanisms for short-term and long-term talent building; process problem identification and problem analysis and provide external know-how. Ensure that inbuilt capacities are put into place for accountability and ownership purposes. The executive leadership team is the glue that will hold the succession effort together; they must consistently demonstrate a belief in and enthusiasm for developing and sustaining the plan. Once the plan is in place, procedures must be developed to promote succession management, which is the execution and monitoring of the plan.
  3. Ensure that the big three (i.e. HR departments; Office of Strategic Management and the Executive Leadership team) are in sync. The succession plan must be linked to, and supported by the organizations overall mission, vision, issues, and strategic goals.
  4. Understand that succession planning and management cannot be conducted in a vacuum; rather, these processes should be linked to and supportive of existing strategic plans, human resource development plans, and other planning activities in an organization.
  5. Act with a sense of urgency and constancy of purpose.
  6. Take deliberate action and be honest about the urgency of personnel shortages. The focus is on developing talent to ensure bench strength in the organization. The common thread for implementing a successful succession plan is communication.  
  7. Make succession planning the business of the entire organization (i.e. CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CLOs executives, administrators, judicial officers, senior managers, mid-level and frontline supervisors and, direct reports); make everyone throughout the organization part of this important process.
  8. Use technology as a means of identifying, tracking, monitoring, and developing the process of identifying high-potential employees. Remember, however, that we depend on technology, but we are not led by technology. Everything seeks its own level.
  9. Succession planning is a support function of the Human Resources department, but HR does not own it; the management team does. They must do the heavy lifting and be the catalyst for ensuring that the succession planning process succeeds. Without the constant and consistent support of the management and the executive leadership team, the process will fail.
  10. Understand that succession planning is not easy and it does not happen overnight. It takes mental acuity, agility, commitment, dedication, determination, persistence, collaboration, funding and lots of hard work to ensure its success and return on investment.


When management takes the time to learn about succession planning, speak the language, adopt the principles and concepts, encourage employee commitment, invest fully in the process, and enable everyone in the organization to apply what is required of them, then they are poised for success in succession planning processes.

Keith E. Robinson , Ed.D. is the Manager of Staff Development and Organizational Effectiveness who works in the Center for Education and Training, responsible for all management training and general skills development for the D.C. Courts 1000 plus employees. He has been employed by the D.C. Courts since May 1999 and has previously served on active duty in the United States Navy.

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