Succession Planning: 5 Common Mistakes & How to Avoid Them

Posted by Rick Yvanovich

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A poor succession plan cost Blackberry 4,500 employees and nearly $1 billion. While the absence of a succession plan is detrimental to the future growth of any business, rushing to draft one up without a deep understanding and careful consideration of all aspects involved can lead to unforeseen consequences. So, what are the tell-tale signs of succession planning failures?

Read more: Succession planning – The myth can’t blind you 

5 common succession planning mistakes to avoid 

Below are five common pitfalls of a succession planning process. 

5 common succession planning mistakes

Mistake 1: You play favourites 

It’s not uncommon for you to get along with someone better than with someone else. However, favouritism can cloud your judgment when selecting potential candidates for your succession plan and hence derail the entire process.  

Your favourite employees may not possess the critical skills required, or to simply put, they lack the potential factors. 

Read more: Giving “difficult” high performers special treatment: yes or no? 

Mistake 2: You don't have an objective process for spotting successors 

We have mentioned in our previous blog posts about the importance of having an assessment in place to properly evaluate the “Potential” and “Performance” factors of all future successors. Without an objective, justifiable process, you risk picking the wrong people, or the selected individuals turn out to be not ready to move up the career ladder. 

There is nothing more detrimental to the overall performance of the business than overlooking qualified candidates and angering your employees. 

Incorporating a wide range of employee data into the planning process, including leadership, competency assessments, 360-degree feedback, and personality profiles, can provide a well-rounded look at the potential candidates. 

Mistake 3: You don't address disappointment 

Everyone deserves an explanation as to why they are not on your list of potential candidates. A part of achieving transparency in succession planning is to ensure the employees understand why certain people are on your list while others are not.  

This is a delicate task. Having an honest discussion about what your employees lack can help subdue disappointment, making it easier for people to swallow.  

You can take this chance and work with your staff to draft up a development plan that can help them address the issue and increase their performance, which in turn can result in greater benefits to your business. 

Read more: Leadership development – What can we learn from Toys-R-Us failure? 

Mistake 4: You turn the process into a competition 

There are two possible scenarios: 

  • The potential successors for the same position may compete against each other, or
  • Leaders view their successors as “potential threats”. 

Succession planning is all about ensuring the right person is put in the correct position. It is not a competition nor the evaluation of each individual’s ego. 

As a manager who witnesses their successors engage in competition for the same position, you should always be honest with each candidate and once again remind them that the results will be based on how well he/she best meets the organisation’s goals and requirements.  

In the second scenario, when the leaders perceive their successors as competitors, it raises questions in terms of the credibility of the succession planning process. Furthermore, leaders may get in the way to properly develop these candidates. 

Read more: Maximising employee’s training and development in the digital workplace 

Mistake 5: You keep the succession planning process a secret 

Transparency helps to strengthen employees’ trust in both the company and the succession planning process. By clearly communicating the goals and activities involved in the process, managers can help everyone understand the need for having one in addition to encouraging your employees to take part in the process. 

Keeping everything out in the open also signifies to your employees that their future at your business is certain and treasured. This, in turn, can help motivate your employees to improve their performance.  

Succession planning in real life 

We are all aware of the transition in power between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook at Apple a few years back. This is a textbook example of succession planning. 

Having said that, Apple is not the only company that has successfully deployed a succession planning process. There are other prominent real-life examples. 


IBM welcomed its first-ever female CEO, Virginia Rometty in 2012.  

Rometty has been working with IBM since 1981. She first started as a systems engineer and has been advancing her career to Group Executives for Sales, Marketing, and Strategy, then to SVP before claiming her power as a CEO. 

Rometty is a prime example of a successful succession plan in developing a leader who fits well with the company culture, known to the board, and demonstrated a solid track record. 

Choosing a leader based on the similarities with the predecessor is a common practice in succession planning. However, IBM chose to establish a comprehensive professional development pathway, create a thriving and positive company culture, and enforce transparency in the selection process. Every employee is offered an equal opportunity to thrive. IBM leaders are sourced internally and are selected based on merits

When Rometty transitioned, she was given ample time to be confident in the new position, to ask questions, to learn new skills, and to manage the workload. 

General Electric (GE) 

In 2017, Susan Peters (then Senior Vice President, Human Resources at GE) published an article on LinkedIn to shed light on the firm's 6+ years-long process of succession planning. Here's how they did it. 

Firstly, GE gave the potential candidates plenty of time to fully grow into their leadership roles. They made intentional moves of key leaders, allowing them to face new challenges, which in turn helped to widen their horizon. 

Secondly, GE developed a detailed job description completed with attributes, skills and experience they are looking for in a CEO based on the current environment, the company's strategy as well as culture. This job description was not static but adjusted over time. 

Read more: The impacts of Behavioural Science on HR 

The firm took into consideration both internal and external candidates, cross-checked them against their criteria, which were built upon deep, rich data from countless research. Finally, they decided on "internal succession as the best path forward." 

The transitioned between the incoming CEO and outgoing Chairman and CEO took four years. Even when sitting in the new position, the succession planning process still continued. The candidate was challenged and questioned continuously, but at the same time, their views on the position were also closely listened. 

Today, John Flannery has proven to be a phenomenal leader for GE. 

To read Peters' full article, please click here

For in-depth knowledge about Succession Planning, please download our whitepaper "SUCCESSION PLANNING: A Complete Guide to Success" today!

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Topics: Talent Management

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 Rick Yvanovich
 /Founder & CEO/

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