Most organizations have succession plans in place for their CEOs and c-suite executives.

It’s standard, if not expected, for that level of leadership. What’s not expected, though it should be, is to have succession plans in place for the other critical roles that organizations depend on. Think of that mid-level IT manager who keeps the network connected. Or the entry-level social media specialist who knows all the logins to the corporate accounts and how to beat back the trolls before things go viral. What happens when they decide to leave or resign unexpectedly?

Dick Wagner, PhD, an adjunct faculty member in human resource management at Capella University, says those are exactly the kinds of roles that every organization should identify and target for succession plans.

“Succession planning is not just for leaders,” Wagner says. “There are always other positions in an organization that represents key roles that need to be filled with the right people. It’s critical to know who those people could be in advance. The need is up and down an organization.”

Unfortunately, too often succession plans, if they exist at all, are not well thought out and carefully constructed. Wagner provides the following examples. 


Hoping for the Best
The hope model is what happens by default at many organizations. Someone resigns or retires, and only then does the organization start looking for a successor. There is essentially no planning and very little thought before the need occurs.

“It’s the equivalent of a knee-jerk reaction,” Wagner says. “When the need arises, just advertise a job posting, and hope for the best.”

With the hope model, the problem is that many of the people hired are ultimately unsuccessful. And with Baby Boomers retiring and the unemployment rate low, the need for smart staffing takes on extra urgency.

“What happens so often is that a new hire is not a good fit and leaves after six months, and the whole process starts all over again,” Wagner explains. “Obviously, this is not an efficient use of an organization’s time and resources and can be damaging to staff morale. This is not the way any organization should behave when filing critical roles.”

The Nominal Model
One step up from the hope model, but still far from perfect, is the nominal model. In this model, organizations typically have informally identified one or two internal people who could potentially fill a critical job on short notice. They are essentially on deck. But do they want the job? Do they know they are next in line? Do they intend to stay with the organization? Those are questions that too often go unasked.

“The problem once again is that there is not a whole lot of planning or thought involved,” Wagner explains. “Typically in this model, you identify a couple of people who could plausibly fill the role and hope that they want it when the time comes. However, just because someone is good at the job they have now, doesn’t mean that person would be good at another job that needs filling. The net has to be cast far wider and with far more thoughtful consideration.”

The Robust Model
Enter the robust model of succession planning. According to Wagner, this is the model that organizations should adopt if they are truly going to be successful in succession planning for key positions.

“With the robust model of succession planning, you take a deep dive into identifying the roles that require succession planning, and truly explore who the people are who could grow into those positions successfully,” Wagner says. “It’s a very conscious effort. It has to be. There are so many people who have had jobs for 25 or 30 years, but no one really knows the depth of what they do and how they do it. Then a crisis hits on the day they say, ‘I’m retiring.’ Then what?”

Wagner explains that the robust model of succession planning involves four steps:

Step 1: Start with identifying employees with promotion potential. This is often done as part of an annual performance review, but can really be done at any time. The important thing is to do it and document the findings. The key issue here is to focus on the future potential in addition to current performance. 

Step 2: Conduct an in-depth assessment of a potential employee’s skills, abilities, and development needs. This can often be done using an assessment center, competency modeling, or a potential assessment like the 9-box grid. 

Step 3: Focus on creating a joint commitment to the development process. This is similar to a goal-setting process in that the employee and management (often working with HR) jointly create a development plan and both agree to follow that plan.


Step 4: This is where the organization starts to reap the benefits of the succession management process. At step four there is a growing pool of trained and qualified employees to fill a number of key roles in the organization. Everyone knows what is expected and where they stand.

“It’s important that succession planning is not a one-time event, but rather an ongoing process,” Wagner concludes. “It’s an interactive process. You need to be continually checking in with people in critical roles, as well as those you’ve identified as possible successors, to determine what has changed and if the interest and need is still there. People may have left the organization. Others may have joined. Maybe the organization has grown or changed focus. It’s always a fluid situation. You need to be on top of your game at all times.”  


Explore the latest trends in talent development with a Human Resource Management degree from Capella University.

Business moves fast, stay on the cutting edge. Keep me informed.