Succession Planning

Transferring Key Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities

Succession Planning - Transferring Key Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

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Make sure vital knowledge, skills and experience are handed over.

When key people retire or leave your organization, a huge amount of knowledge and experience leaves along with them. You need to be prepared for this.

Traditionally, organizations have been concerned about losing a CEO or other high-level executive. Will the company be able to continue operations? Who will lead while a replacement is being sought? Will there be a smooth transition?

These questions are certainly important at the top. However, you probably have many key positions within your organization, at many levels. People in these positions often possess a complex body of knowledge, much of which is intuitive and difficult to replace quickly.

Succession Planning Examples

Let's look at two examples.

Mark, a key account manager, knows that your top client likes to discuss business over lunch at Hy's Steak House, that the client's favorite drink is an apple martini, that they're very involved in Doctors Without Borders, and that their son is studying to be a doctor. Mark also knows that talking with the client about their family and volunteer work is part of the yearly ritual of getting them to renew their contract.

Rosemary in accounting knows that TMX Supply is always at least one month behind in paying its invoice. But the CEO's brother-in-law owns TMX Supply, and there's an unwritten arrangement to not charge late payment fees.

If Mark or Rosemary leaves the company, the wealth of knowledge and intimate, critical details that they've built over the years are at risk of leaving, too.

How do proactive companies lower the risk of losing this knowledge? They use a succession planning process throughout their organizations. In other words, they actively plan for continued success if key people leave.

As a leader, you need to plan for specific knowledge transfer, as well as for continuity of the culture and values that your staff and customers have come to expect. This takes a two-part approach:

  1. Planning for retention, to keep as many good people as possible within the organization, and to ensure there are internal candidates ready to step into positions.
  2. Planning for succession, to provide the necessary human capital needed to achieve business results.

Employee Retention

Often the smoothest transition for a job happens when you hire and promote from within. The person who enters the new role is already familiar with your company. They already know the people and dynamics of your business, so the main focus can be on learning the details of the job.

This can be a great strategy, as long as the people being promoted have been given enough opportunity to develop the skills needed to take on the key position. Be sure you have strategies, programs, and policies in place that support continuity of leadership.

Here are some guidelines to increase staff retention:

  • Integrate for success – Demonstrate your commitment to staff development and growth.
  • Use phased-in training – Familiarize new staff with your company over a longer period of time, allowing them to develop a fuller appreciation for the business as a whole.
  • Establish growth opportunities – Make it known that you promote from within, and follow through with this commitment.
  • Align competencies and contributions – Match the skills and interests of staff with the roles they fill.
  • Motivate – Identify underlying motivators for people, and develop programs that give them what they want.
  • Use rewards – Understand what your team prefers for recognition, and then provide it.
  • Do exit interviews – When a person leaves, ask why, and then look for patterns that point to opportunities for improvement.

The more good people you retain, the more you'll be able to transfer knowledge and keep it within your organization.


For more great ideas on retaining talent, read our article on Job Enrichment. You'll find a number of practical ways to make jobs more satisfying, and to increase your chances of keeping valuable staff.

What Should a Succession Plan Include?

With a solid retention plan in place, look at your actual succession planning. To create a succession plan, you need a thoughtful and continuous strategy for identifying and developing talent. And you want to ensure that leadership continuity exists for all key positions.

When you have a good succession plan, you can ensure that you have the people in place to achieve the results you want, even if key people leave. While every succession plan should be customized to align with the organization's direction, you can follow these guidelines to create this plan:

1. Get Senior Management Buy-In

Make sure that you have support from senior management for your succession plan. The process of succession planning can trigger paranoia from people reading signals incorrectly, and it's helpful if everyone knows what's going on.

Regardless of who develops the plan, it's important for senior executives to endorse it. This ensures that the development focus will be shared throughout your organization.

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2. Identify Subject Matter Experts and Key Positions

Who holds strategic jobs and has specific knowledge in key areas?

  • When there's a problem, who do people consult first?
  • Who knows the company's history and practices?
  • Whose job is highly specialized?
  • Whose skill set is unique?
  • If left open, which position would significantly hurt your business?
  • Which positions would be difficult to fill, because they need particular expertise or a high degree of corporate knowledge?
  • Which positions are facing a labor or market shortage?

3. Identify Key Capabilities and Knowledge

What do the people in these key positions know, or know how to do, that makes their positions unique and special?

  • Look at the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed by the key positions you've identified.
  • Identify competencies.
  • Review and improve the job descriptions for those positions.
  • Determine what specific performance is rewarded and recognized.

4. Identify Succession Candidates

Who within your company has the potential to step into these key positions?

  • Hold regular conversations with staff about succession.
    • Ask each person about their career ambitions.
    • Ask each person about their development goals.
  • Create a skills inventory with the interests and competencies that you've discovered and documented in the above steps.
  • Create an application process for developmental positions.
  • Look at performance reviews.
  • Use 360-degree feedback, geared toward developing these skills.
  • Give aptitude tests to your staff.
  • Consider developing exams, exercises, and interviews to identify suitable candidates.


Depending on your national law, consider holding succession conversations with people who are already in key positions. A good plan may include an assessment of when those key positions might become open. Ask your key people about their career developmental goals and, if you're able to, talk about retirement plans. This may indicate if or when they plan to move on. Keep the communication lines very open, and be on the lookout for signs of change.

However, when you do this, make sure that you're sensitive in the way you do this, and don't trigger paranoia ("Are they thinking of getting rid of me?").

5. Plan for Knowledge Transfer

How will potential successors learn the specialized information they need? Here are some ideas:

  • Mentoring.
  • Interviewing.
  • Job shadowing.
  • Job sharing.
  • Job rotation.
  • Teamwork/cross-training.
  • On-the-job training from a retiree or departing worker.
  • Stretched assignments.
  • Acting positions.
  • Formal training.

6. Evaluate

How well is your succession plan working?

  • Monitor key succession metrics like these:
    • Number of key position vacancies.
    • Days to fill key positions.
    • Turnover in key positions.
    • Participation in development programs.
  • Do all departments have succession plans in place?
  • How quickly and effectively do the new people in key positions perform competently?
  • How many potential successors do you have at any one time?

Key Points

Succession planning is an important tool for helping to ensure that your organization retains important knowledge and skills. This can help with business continuity as well as reduce training and orientation time.

When you know who holds essential information within your business, you can plan for a smooth and steady transfer of knowledge to their successors. Company experience is very important for successors, and proper succession planning can help your organization maintain key functions and relationships, no matter who comes and goes.

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Comments (13)
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hi GRPHR,

    Welcome to the club. We're glad that you were able to take away ideas that you can implement in your organization. Surprisingly, many organizations do not adequately prepare for succession or limit succession planning to executive and senior leadership positions. While senior positions are important to focus attention on, it is essential to plan for key positions and those possessing knowledge and skills that are fundamental to the success of an organization.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago GRPHR wrote
    Interesting article that sparked up new ideas on creating well-formulated succession planning exercises. Thank you
  • Over a month ago Michele wrote
    Hello gedakt,

    Excellent question! Rather than ask your question here, would you consider creating a new topic in the Forums. More members will see your post and are likely to reply and offer suggestions and share ideas over there.

    Mind Tools Team
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