How to use succession planning for employee retention in a tough labor market

Something you should be doing anyway might also be a helpful asset in retaining your best employees.

Manager speaking to staff member

Image: iStock

It's not news that the talent crunch has been particularly acute for technology leaders, with turnover in critical positions and a challenging market for finding and hiring new staff. You've also likely experienced the fact that retaining existing staff is often cheaper and easier than finding, evaluating, engaging and training a replacement.

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There are all manner of tools and techniques for retaining staff, from launching elaborate employee benefits programs to software tools that claim to identify employees who are a "flight risk." However, it's often the simple, basic tools that can have an outsized impact, particularly if you've been ignoring some of these areas. One of those simple tools that leaders often defer or ignore outright is succession planning.

Thinking broadly about succession planning

Too often, leaders limit the scope of succession planning to one or two key leadership roles, and at some organizations, this self-imposed limitation might even ignore IT leadership roles completely. There is certainly a time and place for complex succession planning at the highest leadership levels, but as leaders within our own organization, take a broader view of succession planning and start by identifying the most critical roles within your group or team.

With this list established, rank order each role in order of importance. For different companies, importance might mean different things, but an easy test is to imagine that the person filling that role leaves tomorrow. How dramatically would that departure impact your organization? Would some critical functions or areas be at significant risk, or are there readily apparent candidates to backfill that person or perhaps a way to allocate their tasks to others?

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This thought process naturally includes looking at who could fill these critical roles if the current person suddenly departed, which creates a natural early "draft" of a succession plan for that role. Create a simple matrix of who might backfill your most important positions and make an initial assessment of that person's readiness to fill the new role. This task will grow a bit more complicated depending on the size of your team and the interdependencies between functions and skillsets. A single hypothetical departure might trigger a half-dozen shifts in your team. It may also reveal some roles that you would have significant difficulty backfilling that could be one or two levels removed from the individual that departed.

The gaps that would be challenging to address and cause significant hardship if left unfilled should serve as your initial priorities to address through succession planning. As you develop a list of these roles, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there anyone on the team who could fill this role with additional skills, training, or leadership development?
  • Who are your highest-potential people?
  • Are there any "professional generalists" on your team that could fill multiple roles? If not, would having one or two of these people address some of your potential talent gaps?
  • Are there significant talent or skill gaps that should be addressed more broadly? For example, if there is only one person with a critical skill, is there a way to make that skill part of other roles as well in order to create "human redundancy"?
  • Where are your top three current talent gaps?

With some consideration of these simple questions, you'll quickly identify not only the risks associated with key individuals leaving, but also identify individuals who could backfill roles with some additional development.

This exercise also provides great input into your staff assessment process. As you develop an understanding of who could advance into which roles, and where you have training and development needs, you can apply this data to an individual's learning and development plan.

Succession for retention

A recurring theme during these times of turmoil in the job market is that individuals felt they were in a dead-end job with unclear future potential and no path for advancement. While this could indeed be the case, too often, we as leaders don't share our succession planning or how we're developing a person to fill a more advanced role. Having an aspirational role, access to development opportunities and a clear path upward in the organization can be a significant motivational factor and requires little investment beyond the work of succession planning.

Sharing your plans early and often also allows people input into their career progression. Perhaps you envision a high-performing engineer moving into management, but upon discussion with that individual find that their interests lie elsewhere. Rather than pounding the metaphorical square peg into a round hole and risking losing that team member, some simple conversations might redirect your succession planning. You'll retain a great team member, identify a better alternative and create a significantly better long-term outcome for all involved.

Like many of our leadership muscles, succession planning can seem difficult and somewhat overwhelming the first time you sit down and try to map out a plan. However, with regular repetition, it will quickly become second nature. With a  few hours each quarter, you can update and communicate your plan, creating a more robust and durable organization that simultaneously attracts, advances and retains team members.

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By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...