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From Succession Planning to Succession Development

Multiple people on different pathways to leadership development

Making the Shift

Succession planning involves building a pipeline of future leaders aligned to key roles, to reduce the potential for gaps and loss of institutional knowledge when vacancies occur. Done well, succession planning strengthens overall team development, and specifically the leadership team, offers mobility and growth for high potentials, and demonstrates an organizational commitment to development.

But when it is not done well, nonprofits and other organizations may limit the selection process to a few individuals, which increases bias and limits the understanding of the organization’s needs. There is also a tendency to select one individual as 'the' successor, instead of creating a pipeline of talent that allows more flexibility over time.

The term 'succession planning' itself may be creating some of the shortfalls, as it focuses on the plan or process, and not the people. Instead, consider reframing this as “succession development,” which places less weight on individual identification for a role and more importance on building capabilities and experience for the future.

Six Strategies for Success

Just like strategic planning, succession development can’t be completed overnight; it requires an investment of people and time. The following six steps can help reduce the shortfalls of succession planning and create a stronger succession development strategy.

  1. Have a champion. Identify an impartial individual to lead this work who can hold those involved accountable to progress, keep a focus on the organization and challenge biases that may arise.

  2. Build a success profile. Understand the key capabilities and behaviors leaders need within your organization to succeed. This will help develop leaders at all levels.

  3. Evaluate potential successors. Assess future leaders’ skills within the success profile, understanding where they may fall in the pipeline and what capability gaps do you have within your talent pool.

  4. Build leadership development plans. Create a plan to develop leaders aligned to the success profile, including coaching and mentoring, stretch assignments and formal learning.

  5. Create peer connections. Provide opportunities for potential successors to share knowledge and build cross-functional relationships. This form of team development can help to strengthen the entire organization.

  6. Continue to evaluate your efforts. As development takes place and organizational shifts occur, re-evaluate the situation to see who is still part of the pipeline and who stands out as a potential successor.

Concerns about bench strength, future leadership pipelines and successors continue to be a top concern for organizations and executives. According to the 2021 Global Leadership Forecast from Development Dimensions International:

  • 55% of CEOs identified developing and retaining the next generation of leaders is their top challenge.

This is not a new challenge and has been high on the list for several years, demonstrating the need for succession planning—or, perhaps even better—succession development.

Use the six strategies to help your nonprofit organization shift to succession development. After all, succession development is more than just identifying a successor. It’s about team development and building a pipeline, managing knowledge and deepening the skillset of today to meet the needs of the future.

 Be Talented  TalentED Mark 


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