Difficult Conversations Surrounding Succession

How to Have Difficult Conversations About Succession Planning

So your company has started succession planning – you’ve identified which roles your organization should target through its succession plan, developed success profiles for these roles, nominated successors, and begun to build your succession bench. Now you’re ready to start developing the succession candidates on your bench. This means sitting down with each member of your team and having a candid conversation about their position on your bench.

These conversations surrounding succession planning can be tricky to maneuver. You may have some successors who are aware of where they stand, others who may find the news surprising or even difficult to hear, and a range of people anywhere in between. Regardless of where the members of your team fall, it is important that you have frank and productive conversations with each of them. Below, we outline some helpful strategies for navigating succession planning discussions that will help you to set up your development conversations for success.

Set the Context and Set Expectations

An essential first step when discussing succession plans is to let your people know what to expect. Nothing derails a development conversation faster than ambushing your team members, asking where they see themselves in 5 or 10 years, and waiting while they try to pull their thoughts together. When people are caught off-guard, they are more likely to question your motives for asking, leading them to shut down and become defensive.

A better approach is to add some transparency to the process. Let people know that you’ve recently taken on a new succession planning initiative, and that part of this process is to sit down with everyone one-on-one. Indicate that you want to have an open and honest conversation about their role, what their long-term career plans are, what opportunities may be available to them, and what steps they’d need to take to be ready for those opportunities. It may be helpful ask them to reflect on some key questions in preparation for the conversation, such as:

  • What aspects of your role are you most satisfied with?
  • What are some challenges you face?
  • Do you have any areas you’d like to develop?
  • What are your long-term career aspirations?

If people know what to expect going into these conversations and they have the opportunity to ask questions beforehand, it will help to alleviate any anxiety they may be feeling. This can go a long way towards having more open and productive conversations.

Make a Plan

How you approach these succession planning conversations will have a big impact their success. This means making your development conversations a priority and taking time to prepare for each one. At a minimum, it is essential that you set aside protected time to have these discussions in private where others cannot overhear what is said. Be sure to schedule a sufficient amount of time to talk about everything you need to discuss and leave room for your succession candidate to ask questions. You don’t want to feel rushed, especially if you are delivering difficult news and anticipate some defensiveness or hurt feelings.

Just as you asked your potential successor to prepare for the session, be sure you do the same. Identify your goals and list the key points you want to touch on. Where possible, reflect on specific examples you can speak to that will illustrate your points. Take some time to consider what you hope to achieve from the conversation and what some next-steps will be. This will help to ensure you both leave the session on the same page.

Leverage Mindful Communication

Having a plan going into these development conversations is important but it is not enough. As a leader, it your responsibility to do what you can to keep these conversations on track. This means being mindful of how you are communicating at all times.

When speaking, be truthful and authentic. This will go a long way towards building trust, which will encourage others to follow suit. Remember that being honest doesn’t mean being matter-of-fact and disregarding others’ feelings. Succession planning conversations should be motivated by a sense of responsibility over your direct reports to see them improve and help them become better employees. Whenever possible, draw on the specific examples you prepared and avoid any statements that can imply blame, such as you make me question your judgment when you do X. Instead, make use of “I” statements that better communicate your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. This will help to minimize blame and enhance perspective taking.   

The other component to mindful communication is mindful listening. This means giving others your full attention and showing a genuine interest in what they have to say. Often when others speak we are doing one of three things: trying to predict what they will say next (mind reading), planning our response (rehearsing), or making judgments about what they’re saying before they’ve finished (criticizing). Effective listeners set an intention to understand, and this means giving others the time and space they need to speak.

Listening is an important skill for all leaders to have, but it is critically important when you are having difficult conversations. Few things may be more frustrating to an employee who has just received bad news than trying to talk about their experiences or perspectives only to realize their leader has no interest in what they have to say. Show a sincere interest in what they have to say by paraphrasing what was said and asking for clarification when necessary. You may ultimately find that you don’t agree with what they are telling you and that’s okay – the purpose of the moment is to understand what they have to say, not to determine who is right or wrong.

If you take the time to leverage the principles of mindful communication in your development conversations, you are likely to find the discomfort or heightened emotions that come with these situations will be diffused. Once people feel secure and understood, it will be easier for you to have a calm and productive conversation about your succession plan.  For more strategies on developing effective communication skills, read our post on Mindful Communication.

Putting it Together

Development conversations surrounding succession planning are rarely easy, especially when you’re delivering feedback that may be unexpected or difficult to hear. However, the effectiveness of any succession plan depends on being able to have honest, candid conversations with your team.

You can help to set this process up for success by making your people feel as comfortable as possible. This means adding transparency to the succession process – letting people know where they stand and what they need to do if they hope to move into your role. It also means approaching the process with compassion. The point of succession is not to make anyone feel bad about themselves or to foster a sense of unhealthy competition within your team; nor it is about making promises or guarantees that if you do this, you’ll be next. It’s about helping each team member to develop and grow, to help them set and achieve challenging goals, and ultimately to ensure the continued success of your organization after you leave, knowing you’ve left your role in the hands of someone who was motivated to work for it.  

How SIGMA Can Help You Develop an Effective Succession Plan

At SIGMA, we want to help your company effectively plan for succession. For more information on our Succession Process, Launch Series, or Succession Planning solutions, contact us and learn more about how we can help your organization develop your next generation of talent.

About the Author

Brittney Anderson, Ph.D.

Senior Consultant & Executive Coach

Brittney is a member of our coaching and consulting team. She brings her expertise in evidence-based practice to provide companies with leadership solutions that meet their needs. Primarily, Brittney helps her clients prepare for their future with succession planning and comprehensive leadership development programs. As an executive coach, she helps leaders hone their skills using a process-based approach to development.