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When Succession Planning Fails: Unexpected holes sometimes appear in front of you!


This post will likely be most relatable to anyone who has invested time and effort in training a great person for a role, only to have them leave (sometimes unexpectedly!) Research indicates in many organisations that close to half of roles cannot be easily replaced with another internal applicant… and that about 50% of organisations don’t even have any succession planning in place.

The best of us who have considered succession planning in training – think about those who hold key training positions, including our own roles. No-one is irreplaceable after all!

Strategies used in our sector for succession planning commonly include:

  • Having “deputy” positions so that there is a back up person learning the ropes
  • Offering professional development opportunities to those people we identify as potential future role holders
  • Cross training several people in several roles/areas of expertise so there is always a pool of knowledge and skills (Think SME groups or training teams)
  • Scanning our current teams and identifying potential holes coming up – and formally starting some succession planning and changeover so its a gradual change

In the ideal world these are all great, however I bet many of us have (regardless of best efforts) experienced holes (or sometimes chasms!) opening up in front of us anyway. Research suggests this happens more often than we think, and due to a number of reasons including:

  • Having people identified as “future potential” who in actual fact don’t have the time or interest in taking up these roles (did we ever actually discuss our plan with them??)
  • The person we identified and have prepared as the successor also leaves! Despite all best efforts to identify good successors, new opportunities or personal decisions can cause the next-in-line to leave the organisation. Do we also have a retention issue?
  • Using people we thought were great or ready to fill a hole, only to find out that their skill levels are stretched to far – maybe they are really better for us being just that awesome training delivery person, not the course organiser!
  • Sometimes we start preparing a successor based on old or current skill set needs – only to find that when they are ready to move into a role, we actually should have focused on what future skills are needed to move things forward… so the person who has been earmarked is no longer the best solution!


  1. Don’t give up on the idea of succession planning, even if it has failed before!
  2. Wait to develop a succession plan until after you have checked your organisation/region/unit strategic plan. Think about the future WHAT when deciding on potential future WHO
  3. Make sure everyone knows about any succession plans and opportunities – and that if they are a targeted person they are on board with the plan. Some people may even step forward and identify themselves as wanting to progress in roles
  4. Ensure that those who are the next generation are getting the professional development opportunities they need to fill future roles – they may need some individual plans to target their particular needs (and don’t forget to focus on what the roles/needs will look like in the future not just now)
  5. Don’t be afraid to regularly update or change your planning – circumstances and people in an organisation change over time. Move with things so your plan has greater chance of success
  6. Ensure that current role holders don’t block or make the next generation feel like there is no point/movement happening. They need to have responsibilities and chances to practice skills. They should feel like their chance in the role will come sooner than 20 years from now – even if it is just sometimes/for some things or when covering leave. Some organisations or units use fixed terms for roles to encourage more frequent changes, fresh thinking and chances for more people to be able to fill different roles, thus building resilience and a better appreciation of how every part helps support the whole
  7. Consider the worst case/deep hole/’black swan’ scenario before it happens. What will the plan be if you suddenly lose a person in a role and the hole that is left is not filled by someone prepped to take it over? Consider it business continuity planning – put some contingencies in place even if its just enough to keep “business as usual” on track till someone can be found

One Comment

  1. Natslie
    Natslie February 1, 2018

    What about when you train up the right person but your supervisor disagrees or they do not meet ‘merit selection’ requirements (for varying reasons)

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