Planning for Successors When Leaders Leave


Who will take their place?  This is a question that’s frequently asked when someone resigns from a management position. Even in the best of times, an organization has at most 30 days until the person who resigned leaves. This can be especially challenging in small departments and organizations, as there may be no one currently working who can step into the leadership role. For mid-size and larger companies, that is not the situation. There are many people in the department that the leader is leaving. At times, it may be a necessity to go outside the current company for talent, but that should be the exception, not the norm.

There are things a company can do to avoid having to scramble for a successor when someone quits. Test this out: Ask each person in a leadership role who could take their place should they leave. Circumstances occur in which people leave even when they were not planning to do so. A family situation or an unexpected job opportunity comes up. Things happen. Very few industries can afford to have people on staff who are not doing a job yet have the capabilities to step in if needed.

Plays have understudies who don’t regularly perform but are ready to do so in case an actor cannot. Sports teams have similar “backup” people; they do not play much or at all, but need to be ready if a regular cannot play. In both situations, the backups get lots of attention. However, these are the exceptions. We are in organizations in which there are no backups, or if they do exist, they are currently doing another job. That is okay. The key is to identify potential replacements who have built their skill set in case they are needed for another role.

But what if you ask the leader who might be able to do their job and they share that there is no one? It could be a red flag. Part of every leader’s job is to develop talent. I find insecure leaders do not do that. They may even feel that by not having anyone to replace them, it makes them more valuable. This actually makes them less valuable in their current job and may even reduce their own chance of a promotion. The best leaders seek out people who have or can have better skills than themselves.

If the leader says there is no one who can take their place if they leave, ask them who has that potential. Are they lacking experience and/or skill development? Then ask the leader to create a development plan for the person to continue to learn skills.

Create an individual skill and career development plan for those who are currently in a leadership role and/or could be in the future. This plan includes skills to focus on developing over the next 12 months. Put in place some timelines and actions to develop such skills. Make the individual development plan (IDP) a part of regular conversations. Include any resources that will be provided, such as workshops, books, videos, coaching, etc.

Understand that an investment in skill building is an investment in retaining talent. Research shows that people are much less likely to leave if they feel they are being invested in. Engineered Cooling Services is a company based in Pensacola, Florida. At a community event, their COO, Drew Adams, updated me on their continued investment in the development of talent. No wonder they are so successful!

Yes, at times it is necessary to find leadership talent from outside the organization. However, as mentioned before, this should be the exception. And when it is done, the explanation of the “why” is important. For example, it makes good sense to recruit from outside if the current results are not what they need to be. Though there may be early pushback, if the external person is good, employees will soon understand why the person was brought in. If results are good, roles are best filled via internal promotions about 80 percent of the time. Eighty percent internal promotions maintains the strong culture, and 20 percent external hires brings in new ideas.

The most critical characteristic of organizations that are strong in developing a pipeline of leadership talent is that each leader understands their responsibility for developing others. Other areas, such as human resources, organizational development, and education, can play an important part in providing skill-building resources.

With the number of people who have left and are leaving leadership roles, developing talent matters more than ever. It’s crucial that everyone owns their own development, and that their supervisor understands the important role they play in supporting them in that development. It is an indispensable part of creating a culture that attracts talent and makes them want to stay.

Quint Studer
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Quint Studer’s latest book, Rewiring Excellence: Hardwired to Rewired, provides tools and techniques that are doable and that help employees and physicians experience joy in their work as well as enhance patients’ and families’ healthcare experiences. His book The Calling: Why Healthcare Is So Special is aimed at helping healthcare professionals keep their sense of passion and purpose high. In Sundays with Quint, he shares a selection of his popular leadership columns for leaders, employees, and business owners in all industries.

Quint is the cofounder of Healthcare Plus Solutions Group, a consulting firm that specializes in delivering customized solutions to diagnose and treat healthcare organizations’ most urgent pain points.