Don’t Even Think About Hiring Without a Viable, Specific Succession Plan

December / 2020
Authors: Dr. Josh Cotton, George Randle and Mike Sarraille

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

In the military, succession planning is so ingrained, it is like muscle memory. It is one of the things the military does better than nearly anyone else. 

On a micro level, in battle, you never know when a leader might be injured, killed, or otherwise incapacitated. If the leader is taken out, there must be a clear, competent second-in-command to step up and take the leader’s place. And if that person is also taken out, there is a third leader, fourth leader, and so on. 

You could have a 200-person unit, and there would be a succession plan down to that final 200th soldier. Can you say the same in your company?

Too many companies don’t think about what might happen if a key leader is promoted or quits until it happens. And by then, it’s too late. There is a leadership vacuum.

To prevent such vacuums, you must hire strategically, filling critical roles with future leaders. But if you don’t know where your leadership gaps are, how can you possibly hire strategically?

So before you even think about hiring, you must first establish a succession plan.

What is Succession Planning?

Succession planning is a detailed, written plan for who is in line to take over key leadership roles. Succession planning is what prepares you for the inevitable changes in leadership and allows you to create mentorship and development programs to nurture leaders within your organization.

Succession planning involves asking questions like the following:

  • What is the quality of our talent? Where are our gaps?
  • What pillars of talent do we need now, and what building blocks do we need for the future?
  • Where are we missing leadership? Where are we missing number twos and number threes?
  • What do we need in terms of human capital over the next year? The next five years? The next ten years?
  • In what areas are we growing? Which departments are set to expand and when?
  • Where might we experience attrition? Who’s a flight risk?

It’s important that you regularly revisit these questions. Succession planning is not something you can do once a year. Your organization is a living, breathing entity that is constantly changing, and so your succession plan must constantly change too.

The 9 Box: A Succession-Planning Tool

There are many tools you can use for succession planning, but one of our favorites is the 9 Box. The 9 Box is ideal for succession planning because it identifies employees’ current and potential positions in the company.

The 9 Box is a three-by-three grid of nine boxes, with performance along one axis and potential along the other. The people clustered at the top right of the box are poised for promotion into higher roles. The people at the bottom left, unless they’re newly hired, require more training and leadership development, and in some cases need to be let go.

Everyone in a leadership role should complete the 9 Box, placing their direct reports where appropriate. If they don’t have anyone in the top right corner, it indicates a significant leadership gap. If that leader should move out of their position for any reason, there would be no one to take their place.

The 9 Box gives you a clear picture of not only who is in line for succession but also how much professional development they need to advance. People with high performance and high potential are ready for advancement immediately. High performers with moderate potential are typically ready for a higher role within six months, and moderate performers with high potential usually need six to eighteen months. 

The 9 Box also identifies flight risks. If you have many top performers crammed into the top right blocks and only a couple of promotions scheduled for the next year, then you know who may grow dissatisfied and begin looking for work elsewhere. Armed with that knowledge, you can either prepare for them to leave or take action to ensure they stay.

You should complete 9 Boxes regularly because people are constantly changing. An employee who once showed high leadership potential may turn out to be a poor fit, and one who showed lower leadership potential may grow and become an exceptional leader. 

What’s Your Succession Plan?

Most companies might have a general idea of who their number two and number three are, but there is no detailed, written plan. 

If your organization does not have an explicit succession plan for all its key functions, you are saying that it’s okay to have blind spots, that it’s okay to not know your weaknesses or gaps. Without knowing your gaps, a single leader leaving could be hugely detrimental. You are setting yourself up for failure. 

Instead, through diligent succession planning, you can hire more effectively, ensuring you have key leaders in all the right spots, with others ready to step up when needed. 

For more advice on succession planning and hiring, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command. 

George Randle is the Managing partner at EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms. 

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.