Progress Expectations in Succession Planning

Succession planning is an essential strategic process that helps organizations build a prosperous future. That being said, it may take a while to see results, especially if succession planning is a new venture. For this reason, it is important to track progress on success metrics over time. Measuring progress helps motivate others by seeing their efforts translate to improvement, and it also helps companies adjust their development plans to ensure developmental goals and milestones are being met. In this post, we’ll take a look at different levels of progress and the timelines for results, so that you can set reasonable progress expectations for your organization and your team.

Levels of Progress

Progress along a succession plan is important to a variety of stakeholders: executive boards, leaders, critical role incumbents, succession candidates, and the remainder of the organization. When a goal is important, we often want to see results fast, however, it is essential to recognize that succession planning takes time, and not all metrics will show results at the same rate. As such, a critical part of succession planning is to manage expectations around reasonable timelines for progress. What is measured will depend on the objectives of the program, but research suggests that metrics for succession may be categorized into levels.1 In line with this research, we recommend using the following three categories:

  1. Individual progress
  2. Program progress
  3. Organizational progress

In the context of progress, “level” does not indicate difficulty but rather the expected timeline for seeing results. For example, you will likely see individual progress sooner than you will see significant changes at the organizational level.

Knowing where success metrics fit within the various levels of progress can help you develop realistic timelines for seeing results. This will also help you determine the right time to measure results.  Please be aware that the above categorization should be considered a rough framework rather than a strict rule, and it is important to remember that various contextual factors and situational constraints may also affect timelines for results. When considering any data or quantitative measurement, SIGMA recommends contextualizing conclusions based on industry experience and knowledge of your organization. Finally, it should be noted that although progress at each level is expected to run on a different timeline, they are all part of the same larger succession planning system. Therefore, progress at one level may influence progress at another level and vice versa. Let’s take a look at each level now.

Level 1: Individual Progress Expectations

Individual progress refers to the degree to which key stakeholders (e.g., candidates) are satisfied with the succession program components and experiences. Succession planning initiatives work best when the individuals participating in them are invested in the process. As such, measuring individuals’ satisfaction with the program is an important early metric that will help you gauge how candidates are perceiving and reacting to the initiative. Level 1 captures this by assessing how happy candidates are with the experiences and development opportunities provided to them and whether these opportunities facilitate the achievement of career goals. Research has shown that employees tend to be more satisfied and committed to their organization when a succession plan is in place. This is because succession plans communicate to employees that the company is invested in their development and that there are opportunities to advance in the organization. This satisfies growth needs and encourages employees to remain with their employer. Although becoming part of the succession planning process is an exciting opportunity, it is important that the developmental experiences and training offered are aligned with employees’ expectations. In order for candidates to feel fully invested in the succession planning process, they should perceive the program as being beneficial to advancement and achieving career goals. Hence, it is important to measure individuals’ perceptions of the succession plan, as these metrics can provide valuable information regarding how candidates are engaging with the program and whether adjustments need to be made to improve their experience.

Since the goal is to ascertain candidates’ levels of satisfaction with various elements of the succession program, measurement at this level can be completed using a variety of self-report techniques. Online surveys are a convenient and efficient way to collect responses, as they can be designed in-house and administered via email. Depending on the resources available, data can also be collected via mobile app. Push notifications may be sent at pre-determined intervals or the candidate may be asked to record their perceptions about the program each time they engage with it. This technique, known as “experience sampling methodology,” is effective for collecting mass amounts of data, however, there is also a significant demand on participants to keep up with frequent requests for information. As a general rule, the more frequent the measurement interval, the shorter the survey should be. This helps to minimize participant fatigue and maximize data quality.

Another important consideration for measuring progress is whether the measurement interval will provide meaningful information. At the individual level, candidates may be able to share their first impression of a program relatively quickly, but it is unreasonable to expect an informed opinion about the program within days or weeks of implementation. In general, succession planning is a long process, and benefits are not likely to be realized so soon. As such, it is a good idea to let candidates settle in the program before measuring their satisfaction. We recommend measuring satisfaction 2-6 months into the program, as this ensures candidates have had sufficient time to form opinions of the program. Research generally supports this timeline. For example, one study found that the majority of candidates reported feeling satisfied with the opportunities afforded by the program and the clarity it provided with regards to their career path after a 6-week period.2  Another study found that candidates reported high levels of satisfaction and greater motivation to engage in leadership opportunities after 6 months in a leadership training initiative.3  All in all, giving participants time between program implementation and measuring progress enables them to reflect on their experiences and engage with development opportunities before reporting on their satisfaction.

Level 2: Program Progress Expectations

Program progress refers to the degree to which the succession plan is preparing individuals for potential future positions, and is measured using the development progress of candidates. Whether your organization has a formal training structure or an informal, self-directed development strategy, it is important to measure the development progress of candidates as they prepare to assume critical roles. Measuring progress on an ongoing basis in succession planning has several benefits. For example, having tangible performance indicators can help inform the content and direction of development plans, give managers a sense of how their employees are doing, and motivate candidates to meet their development goals. On a broader scale, quantifying candidate progress also serves as a direct indicator of program effectiveness. This is because a main goal of succession planning is to provide candidates with the tools and experiences needed to be successful in their future roles. As such, obtaining evidence of improved candidates’ performance is critical in justifying program expenses in the future.

Tools that leverage 360 degree feedback processes, such as SIGMARadius, are effective for measuring candidates’ progress towards their development goals. These assessments allow candidates to gain valuable performance-based feedback from a variety of sources. Receiving feedback on a regular basis is important for the continued development of succession candidates, so 360 degree assessments should be conducted as frequently as is feasible and supplemented with ongoing coaching sessions to promote timely progression toward goal completion.

Although we recommend measuring progress on an ongoing basis, it’s important to recognize that development does not happen overnight. Even if progress goals are being reached, it can take time for the candidate to translate developmental experiences into lasting habits. Building realistic expectations around progress at this level can help prevent discouragement on the part of coaches and candidates as well as buffer against reactionary changes on the part of organizers. So what is a reasonable timeline for progress? Results from a large study conducted using data from 80 leadership development companies found that it took 12-18 months to see performance improvements in high-potentials and senior executives. Specifically, they found:4 

  • 40% of high-potentials and 37% of senior executives were reported to have experienced moderate improvements (5-9% increase) in their performance
  • 28% of high-potentials and 28% of senior execs reportedly experienced a significant increase (10-20% improvement) in performance

Candidates should be given enough time in new assignments to allow for the acquisition and application of new skills. The timeframe will likely vary depending on the candidate as well as the context, however, 6 months to 2 years in a job assignment is typically sufficient.5  Taken together, we advise organizations that a period of 6 to 24 months is realistic for expecting behavioral changes in succession candidates.

Level 3: Organizational Progress Expectations

Finally, organizational progress refers to company-level outcomes that result from the succession planning program, including but not limited to successful placements and financial gains. As mentioned previously, succession initiatives can help reduce turnover in organizations by enhancing candidates’ job satisfaction and commitment. Additionally, developing a long-term plan for the organization whereby future role vacancies are filled by internal talent reduces external hiring costs and promotes the development of a robust leadership pipeline. These organization-level benefits of succession planning are often cited by consultants and HR managers as justifications for senior managers to invest in succession planning, and yet they are rarely measured as indicators of a program’s success. There are several reasonable explanations for the lack of available data at Level 3, most notably that it can be difficult to draw a direct line from succession planning to organizational outcomes (e.g., profits). Further, many organizations consider their succession initiatives to be effective even when organization-level benefits are not realized, as long as candidates are being prepared to fill a critical role. Despite these barriers, it is nevertheless important to consider how succession planning programs may impact the broader organization as this can have implications for future decision-making, budget allocation, and strategic planning.

There are several metrics that are appropriate to use at the organizational level. The metrics chosen will be dependent on the organization’s motivations and objectives for implementing a succession plan. The following is a non-exhaustive list of common metrics that can be used to measure progress at the organizational level:

  • Turnover rate: Succession plans can help to reduce turnover by investing in current talent and supporting their progression through the organizational chart. Research has shown that companies with lower turnover rates (1-5%) are more likely to have a succession plan in place.6
  • Promotion rate: A main goal of succession planning is to prepare high-potential employees for promotion into a critical role. In one case study of a large US corporation, there was a 64% promotion rate of high-potential employees following a new leadership succession program.6
  • Return on Investment (ROI): The true ROI of succession planning can be difficult to evaluate, however the cost-saving benefits of succession planning have been quite thoroughly documented.

With respect to the timelines for Level 3 progress, organizational change takes longer to become apparent compared to individual- and program-level change. For example, research on CEO succession indicates that it takes about three years for a new CEO’s strategic initiatives to take effect and begin to affect the firm’s financial performance.7  Therefore, an incubation period of 3-5 years is likely necessary for these higher-level changes to occur. This timeline may seem daunting, however, succession planning should be considered a long-term investment in the future of the organization. Stay the course and adjust as needed based on the more accessible information gained at Level 1 and 2, and you will see results.

Progress Expectations: In a Nutshell

Succession planning may be a daunting task, but rest assured, it is worth the cost. To mitigate any concerns you might have along the way, keep these final points in mind:

  • Organizations who have a more mature succession plan can expect to see results sooner than those who are just getting started with succession.1 However, regardless of program maturity, it is not realistic to expect overnight success.
  • Non-linear progress is completely normal.8  If you notice a drop in your progress, use this as an opportunity to reflect on what factors may be contributing to the trend. It is also important to remember that adjustments may be made as priorities change, but not all changes in progress need to be met with a reactionary adjustment. Ask yourself whether changes are part of the natural ebb and flow of development efforts or whether there is something more that should be done.
  • Succession planning may result in significant changes for some employees. This can be an exciting but also uncomfortable time for some, so be compassionate and include candidates in the process much as possible. Greater buy-in may help buffer resistance to change brought on by the program and even motivate candidates to take a more active role.

SIGMA Can Help

Whether you’re looking to create a mature succession plan, or you are seeking to modify your existing process, SIGMA offers a variety of services that can help, including our succession planning training and our launch series. Take a look at our website here, or contact us directly for more information. We’re always happy to speak with you!

[1] Rothwell, W. (2010). Effective succession planning: Ensuring leadership continuity and building talent from within. Amacom.

2 Brunero, S., Kerr, S., & Jastrzab, G. (2009). The development and evaluation of a succession planning programme in nursing, in Australia. Journal of Nursing Management, 17(5), 576-583.

3 McMurray, A. M., Henly, D., Chaboyer, W., Clapton, J., Lizzio, A., & Teml, M. (2012). Leadership succession management in a university health faculty. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 34(4), 365-376.

4 Church, A. H., Rotolo, C. T., Ginther, N. M., & Levine, R. (2015). How are top companies designing and managing their high-potential programs? A follow-up talent management benchmark study. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 67(1), 17-47.

5 Busine, M., & Watt, B. (2005). Succession management: Trends and current practice. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 43(2), 225-237.

6 Brant, J., Dooley, R., & Iman, S. (2008). Leadership succession: an approach to filling the pipeline. Strategic HR Review.

7 Schepker, D. J., Kim, Y., Patel, P. C., Thatcher, S. M., & Campion, M. C. (2017). CEO succession, strategic change, and post-succession performance: A meta-analysis. The Leadership Quarterly, 28(6), 701-720.

8 Church, A. H. (2014). Succession planning 2.0: Building bench through better execution. Strategic HR Review.