Succession Planning Essentials: 5 Steps to Take Before Your “Top Leader” Leaves

It can be tough when a member of your C-suite leaves—let alone your top leader. No matter how long they have been with your organization, it can be assumed that they have made an impact on your company’s processes and culture. Despite the loss, however, it’s entirely feasible to smoothly move your organization forward from where they left off.

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing new leaders to replace those who are currently in those positions when the time comes. It’s a reality of business, no matter what industry you operate within. It’s also a process that’s overlooked: According to a study, roughly two-thirds of U.S. employers surveyed do not have a workforce planning process in place.

When implemented properly, succession planning can improve a company’s ability to build the next generation of leaders, which will give the company a competitive advantage. To help, here are five steps to take before your top talent leaves.

1. Profile the Top Performer

There’s a reason that your organization’s top performer is so successful: They possess a collection of characteristics and habits that inspire achievement. Rather than hire a new leader based on an undefined set of ideal characteristics, remove the guesswork and profile your top performer.

It’s important to identify if this leader is in a cross-functional, legacy role that will require multiple people to replace them. If so, it’s important to hire a collection of individuals who embody different traits that reflect those of the current leader. From maintaining strategic thinking to being excellent communicators, collaborators, and coaches, there are traits that nearly all leaders share. It’s up to you to identify which ones are most relevant to your organization’s needs.

2. Decide to Recruit or Promote from Within

After you profile your top performer and outline the traits you’re looking for in the new leader, it’s time to consider whether you want to recruit a new hire or promote an internal team member. While a fresh face may bring new ideas and a level of expertise to the table, it’s worth considering your internal team. Transitioning into a new role is much easier when you build up your leaders from within.

If it isn’t already, a strong leadership pipeline should be part of your strategy—it’s just smart business. Leaders who grow and develop within an organization are already aligned with the company culture and goals and are prepared to lead when their time comes.

3. Ramp up Your Training Program

To prepare for a leader’s departure, you can build your organization’s training program while they’re still part of the team. This way, you can leverage your top performer’s feedback to ensure that the program is designed to empower incoming leaders.

In addition to having a structure that allows employees to grow within your company, it’s important to offer a leadership development program that supports this growth. These programs must address skills that individuals should have at various stages, from first-time leaders to experienced executives. Having a leader involved in these programs ensures that they buy into the initiative and will be able to support their employees who embark on a similar journey.

4. Create a Mechanism for Ongoing Coaching

In the past, organizations generally operated with a top-down leadership structure that exclusively benefited executive-level employees. While a hierarchy may still be present across your organization, it’s important to offer ongoing training and coaching to employees at every level and in every department.

Training that’s coupled with ongoing coaching support produces better results. A study found that managers who went through training increased their productivity by 22 percent, whereas managers who experienced training and eight weeks of post-training coaching saw an increase of 88 percent.

Following up through retention tools, digital learning, and coaching is just as important as the training itself. No matter what methodologies you choose, sustained behavior change should be your goal.

5. Measure Results Over Time

As illustrated by the point above, training is never a one-and-done process. Instead, it’s essential to track and measure participants’ progress to ensure sustained development. Determining the return on investment of your training efforts is not only an indication of your leadership development program’s effectiveness but also an indication of whether or not your company is retaining its competitive edge and setting up new leaders for success.

In addition to traditional assessment and measurement tactics such as surveys and tests, companies can explore how assessments can help prime the leadership pipeline, which should be a major strategic initiative for any forward-thinking organization that’s preparing for new leadership.

Post-training assessments can help teams discover which employees have made the largest learning gains and identify common competencies that a company’s highest performers share. Training efforts can then be coordinated around these competencies to ensure that a pipeline of top talent is ready to step into leadership roles as needed.


About the author



Since 1991, John has acquired extensive experience in the design and delivery of a diverse portfolio of programs. In addition to his executive responsibilities as President of Leadership and Learning Events, John is considered a valued partner to many executive teams. His insight and experience enable him to effectively diagnose, design and implement complex culture change initiatives in a collaborative and engaging manner. Moreover, John’s experience in global implementations allows him to draw from a deep well of history to create unique and customized solutions. John’s passion for developing people makes him a sought after speaker, partner, and coach and is evident in the high praise he receives from clients.


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