The Four Conditions for Successful Leadership Succession

leadership succession

Leadership succession does not happen on its own, nor does it happen overnight. Succession planning requires sustained and intentional effort over time; it is never too early to start. The CEO must own the process, led in partnership with the Chief Human Resources Officer, and engage leaders from the Board on down.

In over 30 years of working with CEOs and large organizations, I’ve found that succession is most successful when these four conditions are met:

  1. It is viewed as a strategic priority 
  2. Planning is integrated into and across the organization’s talent and performance development processes 
  3. It is used as a lever to change, build, and reinforce culture 
  4. The CEO and the leadership team hold it as a core responsibility

Often, however, these conditions are missing. Why? One reason is that CEOs feel short-term pressure to focus on hard goals and undervalue longer-term, softer goals in the area of talent development. Another reason is that Boards can fail to take CEO succession seriously.

What can be done? The Board and organization need to shift to a mindset that prioritizes succession planning and creates an environment that fosters the four conditions. Further, the CEO must cement this mindset shift by taking the following actions including: 

  • identifying the top ten to twenty key roles in the company and ensuring an uninterrupted flow of talent to these positions with as much rigor and diligence as you would apply to managing cash flow
  • reviewing the pipeline of talent to these positions on an annual basis to ensure an uninterrupted flow
  • understanding the competencies necessary to successfully perform in these positions and making the investments required to develop them in the people who are candidates for these positions
  • holding people accountable for their developmental outcomes as well as their business results.

Each executive team member ought to hold this mindset. If they don’t, ask them to commit to adopting it and extract a promise (with a clear deadline) to do the work required to internalize it. Anything less will fail.