The 5 Biggest Succession Planning Mistakes

Succession planning, done well, creates brilliant competitive advantage. Poorly executed, at best it’s a waste of time, and often creates serious havoc on long term performance.

All words I’ve heard in the last 15 days: “Oh, we’re too small to need a formal process.” “Our business is moving so fast we don’t have time for that.” “We’re baby boomers and we don’t know how”(trust me, I would never have included this one until I heard it TWICE this week from different companies looking for help). And the scariest of all, “We’re a family owned-business so the decision is obvious.”

1. Talking People Before Priorities

Before you can decide WHO you need to be sure on WHAT. Think future vision and the competencies that will make that possible. Write them down. Then map your people against those possibilities. Choosing people for tomorrow based exclusively on today’s performance will slow you down.

2. Cloning

What often passes for “executive presence” is a desired mold. Be careful. Sure you want poise, effective communication, and a tidy together look, but the quirky challenger may just what you need to take your strategy to the next level. Too many like minds lead to uninspired strategy.

3. Letting Diversity Trump Common Sense

If you complete your 9 box succession planning grid and it’s all balding white guys with a dry sense of humor in box 9 you clearly have a problem. If it’s a perception problem. by all means challenge one another and make it right.

However, I often find this is less of an issue of discrimination at the succession table, than a problem with hiring and focused leadership development down the line. You can’t make anyone ready for the next level by talking yourselves into it or putting diversity multipliers on executive compensation.

The worse thing you can do is pad your “grid” by sliding diverse candidates into blocks where they don’t belong. Sure, identify opportunities for accelerated growth to make up for lost time. But NEVER promote an unqualified person for diversity reasons. You hurt them, your business, and weaken your diversity strategy.

4. False Consensus

You know you have a true box 9, high potential when every head at the table is chiming in with a resounding “Yes!”

A succession planning conversation without conflict is useless. The very best talent reviews involve robust discussion and lively debate which leads to important next steps (e.g. “You’ve got to know my guy better;” “She needs a stretch assignment.”) If I support your guy so you support mine, the business loses.

5. Ignoring the Plan

The worst succession planning sin of all is going through the motions, and then reverting to the old patterns “just this time” when it comes to promotion. Trust me, they next thing on everyone’s mind the next time you want to hold such a meeting is “Why bother?”

Don’t short change your talent strategy. The right people, at the right place, at the right time, will change the game. Be sure you’re prepared.


Karin Hurt, CEOIf you’re struggling with succession planning, I can help. I’ve facilitated hundreds of succession planning discussions over the years from the executive level, through merger integration, and at the frontline. Succession planning is worth doing well. Please give me a call for a free consultation, 443-750-1249.

Posted in Career & Learning, Employee Engagement & Energy and tagged , , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.


  1. I like the idea of mapping future competencies and possibilities to the person we want in the position. This is job benchmarking.

    As Marshall Goldsmith would say, what got you here won’t get you there.

  2. Great post about such an important topic for all organizations!

    I love your point about cloning as I have seen this often. I worked with this one leader this past year who was having a difficult time relating to the gifts of one of his team members. The leader couldn’t connect to the very different style of the team member and became unable to see her value in challenging some of the status quo. Eventually he started to open his eyes to her potential and realized that having different perspectives was extraordinarily valuable for his team’s success.

    Thanks Karin!

  3. I’ve seen the “cloning” thing happen more than once!

    It’s so much easier for the person being replaced to feel that their values and behavior will be mimicked if they choose a clone to replace them. Usually, that is the absolute worst thinking…too often, an organization or team outgrows the leader and that fresh perspective is essential to keep them moving ahead.

    No cloning zone ahead….

    • No cloning zone… amen. No matter how good your are, if you’ve been in your role for a while, what your team needs next is new perspective.

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