10 Things Your Company Won’t Tell You About Succession Planning

This post recently appeared in SmartBlog on Leadership:

I’ve managed formal succession planning systems for a
number of large companies and consulted with quite a few smaller companies. I
network with others that do the same, and keep up with the latest succession
planning current practices, trends, and challenges.

I’m a bona fide succession planning insider, and I know
what goes on behind the scenes.

Here are 10 things your company probably isn’t telling
you about succession planning:

You’re on “the list”.
While “transparency” is
the buzzword in succession planning best practices, the reality is that most
companies are still pretty secretive when it comes to sharing their succession
plans. You might get hints that you are considered “high potential”, or even
told that you are in a high potential program, but you probably won’t be told
if you are on a formal succession plan or whose plan you may be on.

You may be on your bosses’ list, but you didn’t make the cut for the final
Here’s how this happens: your boss is asked for a list
of either succession plan candidates for his/her position, or a list of
. Other bosses are also asked for their lists. Those
lists get sent up the chain of command are compared and calibrated in talent
review meetings, and usually names are dropped or added. Your boss is never
informed of the changes, and assumes you’re on the list and tells you. You
mistakenly think you’re being groomed for the next level and end up being
disappointed when you are not considered as a candidate for that big

You’re no longer on “the list”.
While some companies do a
decent job of informing their star employees that they are “in the program”,
they do a lousy job telling them 1-2 years later that
got dropped from the program
. High potential lists
change from year to year – just because you on considered hipo one year doesn’t
mean you are anointed for life.

You are under the microscope and always
being sized up.
Once you are identified as having high
potential, you’ll be under a raised level of scrutiny. That “stretch
assignment” you’ve been offered for your development? It’s a test, so don’t
screw it up. That “safe learning environment” they told you about in the high
potential training program? You’re being watched – don’t make an ass of

We expect you to be committed.
Organizations consider
“commitment” as an important element of what it means to be high potential.
That means being willing to put in long hours, relocate, and bleed the company
colors. If you are not – well, that’s OK, you still may be considered a valued
employee, but it may take you off a few succession lists.

Development moves are risky, with a high rate of failure.
changes to new and unfamiliar territory (new function, new country, new line of
business) are considered to be the best and highest payoff type of
development, hands down. And no doubt, they are.  However, after about 6 months, everybody soon
forgets that this was supposed to be a “developmental assignment” for you and will
start getting impatient if you are not performing at a high level. No matter
what you were told, you’ll be expected to perform and get results sooner than

That “special developmental project”? You’ll be expected to do that, plus your regular
job. High potentials are expected to
step up and find a way. No one is going to do your regular work for you.

Your status is tied to your boss’s ability to represent you and advocate for
“C player” bosses have no credibility when it comes to
nominating their own employees for high potential programs. Also, some bosses
do a
better job
“selling” their employees to their peers and boss than
others do. You’ll help yourself by helping your boss be successful and making
sure he/she is aware of your accomplishments.

Your status is also tied to what others
think of you.
It’s not just your bosses’ opinion of your
performance and potential that carries weight. Again, these decisions are
usually made in “
” meetings, where everyone (your boss’s peers) gets to
have a say. So don’t tick off your boss’s peers, their perceptions matter!

You’re responsible for your own development.
While you might be
lucky enough to work for a progressive company that actually invests in the
development of their high potentials (they don’t just make up lists),
. And even if you did, you’re better off not leaving your
up to someone else.