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How to write a bulletproof succession plan

How to write a bulletproof succession plan

Written by Gordon Stoddart

Last edited May 3, 2023

How to write a bulletproof succession plan

Part 2 of our Succession Planning month, we look at the steps you need to take to set up and effectively implement a sound succession plan.A good succession plan enables a smooth transition between someone leaving a role for whatever reason and it being filled and is critical to any business looking to maintain productivity and performance and grow.

You may have already put a succession plan in place without knowing it actually was a succession plan. It’s smart business practice and common sense to be prepared for the worst and losing a business critical employee can potentially be devastating; that is if you haven’t got a plan in place.

Equally a succession plan allows the depth of the talent to evolve as the business grows and to proactively plan for new roles, whether they are brand new roles (billing management, team leadership, support functions etc) or replacement positions becoming available as individuals leave or are promoted

Did you miss our first article in this series? Part 1 talks about the role of succession planning in a recruitment business, why we should have a plan, who it’s for and more.

Here in part 2 we’re going to delve into how to write and implement a succession plan in your business, from identifying the roles, defining the ‘gold standard’ of the role, deciding who will best fit that role then putting in the right objectives to achieving a solid succession plan.


There is no such a thing as a finished succession plan. It is a working document and should be ever evolving as the successors and the business develops. It’s also not something that should only be reviewed annually, it requires updating and work throughout the year.

This isn’t just for the Directors.

Depending on the size of your business, each succession plan will look different but don’t dismiss succession planning for all roles below senior management and executives, it’s not just for the top bosses. It’s best to think of it more like a comprehensive contingency plan to safeguard your business against the ill effects of staff turnover and to enable growth.

Although succession planning is designed to safeguard your business when critical employees move on and up, it gives you the chance to develop and invest in your other staff, which will promote and encourage positive culture and engagement within your team.

Throughout the succession planning process a timeline of goals needs to be set. Goals and deadlines should be set to work through as time goes by, thus developing the successors and the plan. A short term and a long term plan needs to be put in place.

So, keeping these aspects in mind, let’s get started with the step by step guide:

Step 1: Identifying Business Critical Roles

The very first step in kickstarting your succession plan is to identify which roles you are going to need to create a plan for, these are the business-critical roles. Business-critical roles are identified by analysing a number of aspects of each role:

  • Geographical location- If there is only one employee in that role, in that location, this makes this role vulnerable if they were to leave. An example of this could be a smaller regional offices with only 1 or 2 billers.
  • Specialised knowledge and expertise- does the expertise and knowledge required for this role need to be acquired over a long time?
  • Network and connections – does the person in this role have a large network of contacts that will be lost if they are no longer with the company?
  • Single incumbent- is this person the only person who knows how to do this role or the tasks associated with the role?
  • Rare in the market- are replacements for the role hard to come by? Could it potentially take a long time to fill this role because of its specialist nature?
  • Department Heads- many other roles within companies rely on guidance from heads of departments. Loss of guidance can mean the lack of direction toward company goals and targets.
  • Big biller- is the candidate a main contributor in terms of revenue coming into the business?

A little example for context.

Last year you decided to expand your consultancy from Manchester to London, you feel there’s an appetite for your niche and you were very lucky to find Ashley. Ashley has a large base of London connections, is good at her job, knows the market and subsequently runs your small team in London (there’s only 3 at the moment) oh, and she’s billing big.

Naturally Ashley fills a vast majority of the listed criteria, she’s in a vulnerable role that will leave a hard-to-fill hole if she were to suddenly leave, or be promoted internally. Now you have defined Ashley as a business critical role we take it to the next step.

Step 2: Define what you’re looking for from the role- Gold Standard

After you have identified your business-critical role, you need to define your ‘gold standard’ for the role. What does the perfect candidate look like? What skills and characteristics do they have?

The next step is to realise that it’s going to be a long shot to find this person. The perfect person rarely exists and you need to set your expectations accordingly. Produce a job description for the role even if you do not intend on hiring externally. This way you can assess any potential internal candidates against the same list of requirements, as you would your external candidates.

Your gold standard for the role may not list the qualities of the person currently in the role. The job description or list of requirements that you compile here should align with your long term business vision. Where do you see the role going? Is there anything you would change about the person currently in the role or the position itself? This will guide you when you start to look for your potential successor.

Ashley had a job description when you first found her but over time her role has evolved and changed. She has become invaluable in aspects you didn’t think of before, so it’s imperative you write a detailed, updated job description with everything she does. You’ve also brought her into the fold with your succession planning to help with the writing of it, and she’s highlighted a few internal activities she does that you weren’t even aware of. Ashley appreciated the fact you understand the importance of her position, enough that you need to make a plan.

Once you’ve completed the job description, have a good think about what the gold standard of the position would be, and with that you’ve got bold ambitions for the future of your London office as you could see it being a hub for a couple more southern offices. This adds a few more criteria to the job description, you’ll need someone hungry with good leadership skills to help propel the business.

Step 3: Decide who will best fit that role

Now that you have thought about what you would want from the role and what your gold standard is, you can clearly and methodically assess all potential candidates against the same list of requirements.

Following on from here, there are two different routes, internal and external. As we discussed in our last article, succession planning can be split between finding a potential star already within your company to train and develop, and finding an external hire who is able to step straight into the role and take it forward.

It is equally important to map out both of these routes. Do not view them as alternatives but standing side by side.

Internal Successor

Finding potential internal successors should be done as part of an integrated talent assessment on all employees. By assessing all employees it means that it is a fair process and no one gets left behind. It can also highlight any areas where your employees are lacking in the skills to succeed and could potentially progress your business to the next level.

It is all too easy to forget about your current employees if they have been in a position for an extended period of time; they do well in that position but you haven’t considered their full potential or pushed them to reach that. Everyone is happy in their comfort zone and some people may not look for more unless it is suggested.

Talent analysis- Visual tool 9 box grid

The 9 box grid is an effective visual tool which allows you to assess your employees’ current contribution to the company and their potential contribution. Along the ‘Y’ axis is potential and performance is plotted along the ‘X’ axis. Employees who fit into the top right box are likely to be first in line when it comes to being a successor. The boxes to the left and below would be next in line for a potential successor following some development.

Not only does this visual tool help with identifying successors, but it also allows you to spot the employees who are struggling and need help and guidance in their current role.

Assessing the training needed to plug knowledge gaps

Development opportunities should not be limited to successors only, but should be provided to all high potential employees, but also potentially underachieving employees too. By assessing skill gaps in all areas of the company, you are able to work towards plugging them, which is where talent management programmes come in.

A survey is a great way to assess the training needs of your employees. Here at The Recruitment Network we offer the Training Needs Analysis survey which enables you to get a clear picture of exactly what training each individual employee requires to progress in their current role. If you are interested in completing a survey for your company please contact us.

Implementing training- Talent management programmes

Talent management programmes are an excellent way of giving real structure to developing your successor, especially if they are moving into a leadership role which they do not have previous experience in. Our Recruitment Trailblazers programme focuses on transforming your top biller into talented recruitment leaders, through the peer to peer support and access to industry thought leaders.

External Successor

In addition to looking at all of your employees internally, to assess what they have to offer in terms of being a successor to a business-critical role, you should also plan for the option of finding an external successor. Internal successors could also leave, which would put a spanner in your succession plan if you had relied on them and only planned one scenario.

Budget- time & money

Going down the route of employing an external successor can have a significant short term financial impact on your business and this needs to be planned for. The whole cost of hiring on your time and money can only be planned for in theory but it is good to have a budget for this, so that it doesn’t come as a surprise, and to ensure that the costs don’t spiral out of control.

Planning the hiring process

After planning the budget, now you plan where you are going to find your new successor. By planning this process out it should reduce the time it will take to find a suitable person for the role. Hiring takes time and the wrong hire could cost your company a considerable amount, in lost time and money.

Onboarding process

Onboarding processes will be commonplace in many businesses but a plan, specific to the particular business-critical role, will lessen the time it takes to get the new hire to optimal productivity, therefore reducing the cost of downtime to your company.

Step 4: Setting up objectives

As we stated before a good succession plan evolves and changes to align with the objectives and position of your company. Stagnation is the enemy of progress and as your business grows so should your succession plan.

Once you’ve laid down the basics of your succession plan it’s a good idea to set in some objectives and revision dates to keep bringing you back to your plan, to avoid it going out of date.

Measurable goals to propel the succession planning process.

Put in dates with various parties to reassess the succession plan

Next put in some hard dates for objectives and changes, blocking out time in the diary to come back to the plan and see what’s changed is important, as these things can easily be ignored and left to collect dust – Then when the worst happens, you’re scrambling to update the plan, but it’s too late…

  • Has training been met? – If nurturing your internal successors, then training is a necessary aspect of getting them ready to take the position when it becomes available. It’s important to put in some solid dates to get them trained up.
  • Is there further training? – Every few months put in some dates to look at whether their training needs to be re-taken, reassessed or perhaps they’re ready to take on a more advanced course.
  • Has the job description changed? – Most of the time a job role will evolve and change over time, so make sure every 6 months you reflect on the original job description and confirm it’s the same, otherwise give it a tweak.

Does the succession plan meet with realigned business objectives

Your business is inevitably going to grow and change, quarterly objectives will be met, new plans will be in place, office dynamics will differ and that means your business objectives will change. Book in some time to refer to your succession plan regularly just to blow away the cobwebs and make sure everything is aligned.

Reassess the talent in your company

Your internal talent pool is going to change over time, from new hires to existing talent learning new skills and evolving their job role. Check back every 6 months to take an inventory of the talent within your firm. From productivity to skills, it’s important to reassess your successors.

Spending all of this time setting out a plan for your business-critical roles is pointless if you then close it up and put it away for another day. The plan needs to be worked on and kept up to date. No succession plan should ever be static and it should run concurrently with your talent management programmes. As your identified potential internal successors progress you will need to adjust your plan. We suggest that it is a good idea to revisit your plan every other month, or sooner if there are any developments within the company, such as a member of staff leaves, particularly if they are part of the plan, or your hire a new employee.

So, if you manage to identify the roles, set your gold standard and decide who will best fit that role, then keep it all up to date in your ever evolving plan, you’ll be in the best place to safeguard your business against the ill effects of staff turnover. In next week’s article we dive deeper into the question of internal versus external when it comes to succession planning, with the following week discussing what to do when it goes wrong.

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