Succession Planning: Top Tips and Free Template –

Succession planning involves investing in your company’s future leaders and senior staff to prepare for the loss of a key team member. Essentially, it’s a contingency plan for your workforce talent.
Nobody wants to think about a valued co-worker leaving. But in today’s competitive jobs market, even the most talented and loyal employees – or founders – might receive a rival job offer they can’t refuse. When this happens, leavers take their skills and experience with them. If there isn’t an obvious substitute, the fallout can be disastrous.
Effective succession planning is the cheat code to avoiding this worst-case scenario. With the right prep, you’ll have a replacement candidate already lined up to go, ensuring a smooth transition period and making a stressful process much easier to handle.
So what exactly is involved in succession planning? How do you get started? We’ve broken down succession planning into simple, actionable steps that you can get going with right away.
Before we take you through our guide to succession planning, it’s a good idea to download a pre-made, well-organised plan so you can start inputting as you go. We recommend the free ClickUp succession plan template.
It’s available for zero charge and has already mapped out key metrics to measure, such as employee specialisms, employment information, and succession potential. View the template below and then sign up to ClickUp to get started with your own version.
ClickUp succession planning
Succession planning is a people management strategy. The process involves finding and developing future leaders or C-Suite executives, as well as more specialist individuals, for that dreaded day when an indispensable employee hands in their notice.
Every company has crucial leadership roles – these include department heads, board members, or even founders and the CEO. When these individuals choose to leave, it can be a nasty surprise for organisations that haven’t prepared sufficiently. That’s particularly true for startups, which tend to have smaller, more specialist teams.
In simple terms, a succession plan will ensure that key individuals can be replaced at short notice should they choose to retire, resign, or relocate.
Succession planning can seem overwhelming, with a lot of moving parts to consider. But, change is constant in business. The truth is, succession planning is a necessary process with lots of positives.
Ed Reid, managing director of business coaching franchise The Alternative Board, says “Whilst the primary reason for a succession plan is to be ready for disaster, it is exciting to plan for change and being involved can motivate your employees and maintain their company loyalty.”
Succession planning has never been more crucial than in today’s competitive jobs market. Just after COVID-19, the so-called great resignation saw a wave of working-age people quit the workforce. The tide has yet to turn as today’s bad economy means dissatisfied workers continue to resign. Often, unexpectedly and without warning.
In this climate, succession planning is a must. As hiring managers struggle to find qualified candidates for a role, internal recruitment is the only sure way to avoid a costly and sparse talent market.
Thankfully, with the right succession planning, you’ll have a wealth of home-grown individuals to choose from to fill a vacancy. Consequently, HR managers will avoid making random or rushed selections that negatively impact on business performance and finances.
Case study: Microsoft
Microsoft logo at office building, Munich Germany
There are plenty of examples of businesses that have been thrown into chaos after being unprepared for the resignation of a key player. Namely, Steve Ballmer, who stepped down as CEO of Microsoft in 2013.
Despite being a global technology giant, Microsoft had no plan for who would replace Ballmer. Instead, it recruited externally, in a six-month long process that left the company effectively in limbo until a replacement, Satya Nadella, was found.
Proper succession planning would have helped Microsoft to avoid this undesirable scenario.
If you’ve seen the in-fighting travails of the Roy family in HBO show, Succession, you’ll already know that finding a successor is no easy feat. Looking for someone to take over a key leadership role that you’ve lovingly nurtured (or fiercely held onto) is difficult to imagine. This is particularly the case if you’re waving goodbye to the business you yourself started.
Logan Roy contemplates his poor succession planning – photograph: HBO/David M. Russell
Done poorly, you’ll be like Logan Roy, stuck between competing unlikeable candidates and unable to decide. Typically, this leads to an external replacement being rushed in quickly who doesn’t know the dynamics of the organisation. The result can have the following negative impacts:
There is no single ‘right’ way to do succession planning. The best strategy depends on the unique make-up of your organisation – particularly if you are a founder who is leaving the business you started.
For example, if you are a very hands-on leader who looks after multiple responsibilities, you need to choose whether to spread these duties across multiple individuals or departments.
That said, here is a general, three-step outline of the steps to follow to keep the succession planning process as smooth as possible:
To begin succession planning, reflect on the roles and responsibilities that need to exist to protect business continuity. Then, take the information you’ve compiled and use it to create ‘job profiles’.
These describe jobs that require specific licences or qualifications, like an accountant, or they might be famously difficult to hire for, like a software engineer. Either way, you should have a good understanding of what each role entails so you can more easily locate a suitable replacement.
Now is also a good moment to think about new business challenges that might be waiting in the wings in 2023. For example, given the current labour shortages, a recruitment manager might be a critical hire this year if you work in an industry with high turnover.
In the free ClickUp succession plan template, type up a shortlist of employees that could succeed the current post-holder. Remember to think long-term; they don’t have to be ready to lead the nation tomorrow morning.
Using ClickUp’s ready-made columns, list factors that might influence each candidate’s suitability like their start date or industry specialism. Other relevant notes, like their supervisor, can also be added.
Finally, use these criteria to allocate a ‘succession potential’ score to each person ranging from ‘High’ to ‘Low’. Don’t worry about discarding low-potential employees. They might have moved dramatically up the scale in a year’s time.
No-one is born to be Chief Financial Officer. Potential successors need long-term support to reach that level of knowledge. As the fourth step, highlight areas for growth within each worker and outline a strategy to kickstart career development.
Designing a ‘hands-on’ training program is the best way to achieve suitability. For example, you might choose to instruct individuals to shadow various departments to understand the business on a granular level. Or, connect them with a mentor.
Simon Gardiner, co-founder of technical recruitment company Carrington West, cautions that companies should invest in long-term training to create a high-performance culture for “truly successful succession planning.
“Identifying a successor is not an overnight process,” he adds. “People can’t simply be selected, they have to desire to perform their new role. If you have a poor retention rate, plans can be torn up as quickly as they are designed.”
Dominic Ashley-Timms, CEO of Notion Business Coaching, says that business owners need to be prepared to step back and relinquish control to others when there is a learning opportunity.
“People become leaders by being put in harm’s way,” explains Ashley-Timms. “It’s hard for managers to say ‘actually, there’s someone who could benefit more from solving this’ That’s the mental shift that needs to happen.”
We spoke to three experts about the exact timeline of succession planning as a small business owner. All of them gave the same, short answer: as soon as possible.
Really, a succession plan begins with your first hire. After all, every new team member is onboarded to achieve a business objective. Even a temp secretary might be able to grow through the ranks to become Chief People Officer in ten years’ time.
Katy Camidge is Chief People Officer at The University of Law. Camidge says that “early conversations around career aspirations, what interests and motivates an individual will soon provide the business owner with an overview of future leadership suitability in the organisation.”
Get off on the right foot. With every new senior hire, edit your succession plan template to document a list of candidates with future succession potential.
Download the free ClickUp template to start planning for a smooth leadership transition
Helena is a Senior Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she’s an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon’s boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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