1. Identify The Mission Critical Roles.

The most common mistake we see clients making in succession planning is attempting to create succession for everything simultaneously and, as a consequence, making very little progress on anything. The first step toward successful succession planning is perhaps the most important: Deciding which succession gaps are truly “mission critical.”

Every leadership role in the organization is important or it wouldn’t exist. However, some expertise or perspective is more easily replaced, internally or from the external market, than others. The key is to evaluate which roles in the organization absolutely require unique expertise/perspective — that either does not exist inside the organization today or cannot reasonably be acquired in the external talent market. This pool of roles, typically not more than 30 percent of the total team, can be deemed “mission critical.”

2. Prioritize Based On Risks.

Not every succession gap holds the same level of risk to the organization at a particular moment in time. For the pool of identified mission critical roles, the leader must assess the near-term risk of losing any incumbents in those roles. The risk can be due to internal movement (planned) to another role or external movement (unplanned departure or retirement) by an incumbent. Prioritize succession-planning efforts for all mission critical roles based on this risk assessment.

Only one or two succession gaps should be addressed at a time. Tackling more than two at a time is normally not practical because numerous candidates need to be evaluated for each mission critical role.

3. Emphasize Leadership And Learning Agility In Choosing Potential Successors.

Functional knowledge/technical skills of a potential leader are usually easy to assess. On the other hand, leadership skills and learning agility, while trickier to evaluate, are the heart and soul of making succession planning work.

What is learning agility? It is the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and subsequently applying that learning successfully under new or first time conditions.

As an example, Ann, an analyst on a cross-functional project may have observed the political savvy of the project sponsor and made mental notes of his techniques. Later, when Ann is promoted to a team leader role, she may naturally recall those lessons on political savvy — and then employ them in her new situation. That recall and use of a once-observed technique demonstrates learning agility.

Separately, the more senior the mission critical role is, the more important it becomes that the successor have proven leadership competencies.

A watch out: Companies often over emphasize technical skills and minimize the importance of learning agility or leadership competencies.

4. Test The Successor Pool With Stretch Assignments.

Once a candidate has been identified, organizations should develop “stretch assignments,” designed to give the candidate a growth opportunity in a setting currently missing from his or her background or résumé but necessary for success in the mission critical role. Examples could be merger and acquisition experience, international perspective or decision making at the board level.

While the current leaders are still in place (i.e. an unplanned turnover has not yet occurred), it is critical that the organization take significant risks in allocating scope to the succession candidate. Leaders often think too incrementally about stretch roles and projects. Most high potential candidates have the capacity to take on two or three times the scope/risk that leaders initially consider allocating.

5. Design Seamless Transitions.

Leaders must invite potential successors to begin collaborating with them on the most complex elements of the role. In this way, leaders impart critical knowledge, and successors feel valued since the organization is appropriately investing in them.

Companies often feel that they cannot broach this topic with succession candidates before an actual leadership opening occurs. Therein lies the peril. The top succession candidates are well aware of their value and are always assessing their opportunities for career advancement. Leaders must productively channel a succession candidate’s energy or it will become a negative force.

6. Rinse And Repeat.

Once an organization has resolved the succession gap on one or two mission critical roles, the process starts over again. The first step is to pause and reflect, considering what worked well in the exercise and what would be valuable applications in other situations. Secondly, consider the ever-evolving business situation.

Have any recent external or internal changes caused us to think differently about our succession priorities? Then it’s time to return to step one and repeat the cycle until all succession gaps have been eliminated.