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Succession Planning

Talent Management

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Section 4

Succession Planning

Succession Planning is a strategic talent management process to identify potential future leaders for key roles and the associated actions we need to take to develop these people to be ready to fill these roles to help ensure our future success.
  • It takes account of both emerging business requirements and emerging talent, and is flexible enough to handle changing business priorities and the economic realities of our talent market place.
  • Within Succession Planning we:
    • Review and agree the key roles and skill sets that we need for future business success 
    • Review the skills, capabilities and aspirations of our people to identify the depth of our current lists of successors in the short and medium term
    • Identify retention risks and potential gaps in our talent pipelines
    • Plan individual employee development activities to enable people to be serious future contenders for key roles 
    • Plan recruitment campaigns to regenerate our talent pools.

Why would we want to invest the effort into Succession Planning?

Succession Planning can benefit us at all levels from individual organisations to the KSS region to the NHS as a whole. 

a) Strategic Capability Review: Succession Planning provides the opportunity for executive teams to stand back and review whether the organisation has the capability to fill the type of key roles that will be needed to lead the business in the future. 

b) Business Risk Protection: Succession Planning helps to mitigate against potential risks to the organisation from unexpected loss of key personnel occupying critical roles and urgent needs to reorganise its management layers. It puts the executive team more on the front foot with pre-planned thinking rather than having to react to crisis situations.  It ensures contingency plans are in place, where there are not obvious successors, to minimise the amount of time a critical role is vacant. It also highlights where a person may be a potential successor for more than one role and to manage that eventuality.

c) Leadership talent assurance: Succession Planning requires that all current and emerging leaders are visible to the executive team and that an independent, cross-functional view is taken of their development and the organisation’s plans to grow its talent pipelines. It tracks the progress of individuals but does not guarantee roles for them: they still need to apply for positions and be considered with other internal and external candidates. It also provides a forum for executive teams to sponsor the organisation’s efforts to achieve a more diverse leadership community, for example, with more clinicians in senior roles, a better equality mix (race and gender) and more people from outside the NHS who share our core values.

d) Retention of key staff: Succession Planning can have a significant impact on retention through demonstrating  tangible examples of executive teams spending quality time on managing ‘home - grown’ talent, providing increased support to existing leaders in senior roles, identifying potential career paths and planning personal career development conversations. 

e) Positive employer brand: Leading organisations view Succession Planning and talent management generally as a strategic priority and an important long term investment. It is frequently used in employer branding when attracting high potential staff to join the organisation in the first place. 

Who is covered by the succession planning activity?

Getting the scope right is key to maintaining a sensible balance between focus and comprehensiveness. No-one wants the activity to consume more resource than necessary, nor descend into a bureaucratic , box ticking exercise. Succession Planning seems to work when we are clear about two things: roles and people.  

Roles: Succession Planning generally covers the most senior leadership positions in the organisation and other critical roles that are pivotal to the organisation’s success. Often these roles are hard to fill. Whilst executive teams need to be aware of the overall organisational structure, they are usually concerned with the two organisational layers that report to them. When fully developed, this process tends to cascade down the organisation to include all leadership and scarce skill roles. 

People: Succession Planning discussions need to include all current role holders identified above plus at least their direct reports and ‘high flyers’ below that level.

Why have we been slow to adopt this talent management practice?

It is true that, whilst Succession Planning is very common in many organisations, there are a number of cultural issues that can block adoption of it within our people management practices. Have a look at this list and see if any of these resonate with your organisation: 

• Parochialism : historically, many system reforms seem to have encouraged parochial behaviour and not fostered much of a common culture across organisations. Organisations have been encouraged to meet their financial and operational targets using their resources as they best see fit. Succession Planning and talent management generally have not benefited from the type of corporate level backed and funded initiatives that are more common in leading private sector companies. The current round of system diversification could potentially increase this parochial tendency. Consequently, there is a real fear that this will exacerbate what is already a tough task for individual organisations, which is building talent pipelines for future leadership positions. In the ‘war for talent’ it is very hard to go it alone when you are only one organisation within the NHS. 

• Uncertainty : the intensity of the current challenges facing the NHS breeds uncertainty in people and in management teams. This includes trying to plan for the type of jobs that might exist next year let alone five years’ time. It is not surprising when this results in a culture of fire-fighting and focusing everyone just on hitting targets rather than getting the balance right between the day-to-day and also developing talent to meet our future challenges. 

• Hoarding : one consequence of parochialism and uncertainty is for managers to ‘hoard’ their talent from the eyes of others, for fear of losing it to another part of the organisation or to another organisation within the NHS. This is sometimes described as taking an attitude of “hide your best and grab the rest”. Ultimately of course, this attitude seldom survives beyond the short term as talented people soon realise there is an artificial cap being placed on them realising their potential. The inevitable consequence is that they tend to leave anyway, and often out of the NHS altogether. Sadly, this can be accompanied by poor PR which in turn damages our employer brand. 

• Exclusion : There is a perceived danger that executives will seek, consciously or unconsciously, to propose successors who are ‘in their own image’ rather than consider the talents that are on offer from a more diverse range of candidates. We are aware of it and we need to ensure our Succession Planning process is as inclusive as we can make it. We also need to keep our minds open to the range of roles an individual could potentially undertake rather than restricting our consideration to just one job or one function. Any approach to Succession Planning that is implemented should not breach equality principles and recognise the benefits that come from a workforce that is representative of our populations.

• Responsibility : some executives embrace the fact that they are responsible for developing the talent within their organisations, whilst some do not. What is interesting is how these two groups use the HR/OD professionals  they have available to them. The former rely on them to ensure the process works smoothly but still retain accountability for the content and quality of discussion at the most senior levels; the latter regard Succession Planning as an HR/OD process and, when they have to, merely comply with it as box ticking exercise.        

• Complication : the quickest way to discredit any process is to make it as complicated as you can. Succession Planning is a simple process and we need to resist the temptation to try to make it fool proof. No-one wants to drown in a sea of paperwork and spreadsheets. 

Principles of Succession Planning in Kent, Surrey & Sussex 

To help overcome the typical barriers to adopting Succession Planning in the NHS, we believe it is helpful if we start at the individual organisation level and gradually work towards a more system wide approach. 

We believe that some degree of consistency makes sense not just economically but also to facilitate  conversations within an organisation and between them. Using similar tools and processes helps as does a common set of principles that we can all more or less buy-into. These have yet to be agreed across the NHS. However, in the meantime, within KSS we will be proposing that we work towards a small set of principles that could be acceptable to all our organisations as follows: 

1. We recognise that to ensure we have access to the right quantity and quality of leaders and key technical talent we need, it will require systematic talent management effort and forward planning led by our executive teams.

2. We have a responsibility to ensure business continuity through minimising the disruption caused by people moving on to new roles, whether they be inside or outside the NHS.

3. We appreciate that good succession lists and executive level conversations will require the supporting processes to be robust and transparent, particularly performance management and potential assessment.

4. We see cultural diversity as making a positive contribution to our organisation and cross-functional experience as valuable in building general management careers.

5. We understand that opportunities for local talent to develop need to be balanced with bringing in talent from elsewhere to ensure we keep topping up our talent pipelines. 

6. We believe that, as ultimately individuals need to take responsibility for their own careers, they deserve to receive feedback on discussions that take place about them in terms of succession lists within the context of confidential personal 1:1 conversations that can manage expectations on both parties.

7. We accept that, whilst HR/OD professionals can add valuable expertise to the process, responsibility for Succession Planning and talent management has to rest with line management, who are accountable for nurturing their teams and potential successors. 

When should we do Succession Planning?

There is no set timetable for succession planning as it will be determined by each organisation as to when it will fit within their own implementation priorities. This is likely to be affected by a number of factors:

a) The point(s) in the year when the executive teams want to allocate focused time in their meeting schedules to this process as part of their overall Talent Review for the organisation

b) The timing of the business planning cycle which will affect views on the likely shape of the delivery model and senior level structures to support it

c) The timing of the annual performance review /career development planning process; Succession Planning is best done whilst input data is still fresh 

d) The timing of other people management initiatives being rolled out by the HR/OD function 

e) The timings in the communication plan to brief participating managers who will be responsible for feeding data to the executive team. Talent maps are particularly helpful in identifying potential people to be considered for inclusion on succession lists (See Maximising Potential Conversation Tool).

What do we get out of doing Succession Planning? 

As with all talent management processes, executive teams and their managers will be looking for some tangible outputs from their efforts to reinforce the desire to keep their succession plans up to date. These we see as follows:

A comprehensive view of all leadership and critical roles and named individuals who might be potential candidates to fill them, now, in the short and in the medium term. Awareness where one individual is named against more than one role.

Contingency plans for potential succession gaps:

  • A set of actions to retain key people considered to be at most risk of leaving
  • Short term mentoring and monitoring
  • Accelerated development plans (see below)
  • Awareness where such people are not named on any succession plan within the organisation and who might benefit from a facilitated introduction to another organisation at some stage

A set of development plans for named individuals to improve their readiness for consideration for future roles, including:

  • Stretch responsibilities within current role
  • Lateral moves within current function and cross-functionally elsewhere in the organisation
  • Formal training courses 
  • Informal coaching/mentoring support
  • Project experience
  • Familiarisation visits / short periods of exposure to other disciplines

A list of recruitment priorities to start looking now for a potential short term known vacancy to initiate an internal/external search campaign to gather candidates ahead of the need.

  • Redeployment plans for named key individuals where the role is due to disappear
  • Internally within the organisation
  • Externally within the NHS
  • Externally with partners outside the NHS 


Succession Planning Template

This template is a simple but powerful excel document that captures the information required in succession planning. It will ask you to consider your key roles, who their successors are and any actions in terms of identifying/developing future leaders. You can use as a centrally held document as well as distribute out to functional leads to keep a local record.