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How to Identify Your Organization’s Critical Roles

Succession Planning Step 1: Critical Role Identification

They say the only constant is change, and this is certainly true of business leadership. Any organization can count on changes in personnel in key roles at some point, whether due to retirement, natural career progression, or a variety of other reasons. A sudden vacancy in a critical position cannot only leave an organization scrambling to fill in, but it may also leave a significant gap in knowledge and experience that takes time to rebuild.

Many companies are not prepared for the departure of key personnel: a Stanford University report found that 33% of companies don’t have successors ready to fill key C-suite positions.[i] And respondents to a KPMG global survey reported an insufficient pipeline of future leaders and a lack of internal candidates for critical roles as their top two talent management concerns.[ii] That’s why it’s so important to put succession management strategies in place ahead of time and minimize the effect these inevitable changes have on business operations. In this blog, we will teach you how to use SIGMA’s Critical Role Identification Questionnaire to identify critical roles and launch a robust succession planning process.

How to Start Succession Planning

Succession planning is a process to identify the next generation of senior leaders in your organization who have the potential to fill key roles when the current personnel move on. This provides your company with a roadmap to ensure the continuity of your operations when changes occur. And it allows time to develop the future leaders’ knowledge and skills, so they are prepared when the time comes to step into their new roles.

The first step in creating a succession plan is to identify which key positions you should include in the plan. Essentially, you need to identify which roles would have the greatest impact on your company’s performance, and would also be the most difficult to replace.[iii] Consider factors like leadership responsibilities, specialized skills, and strategic importance of the role. Selecting the right key positions to focus on is important to the successful outcome of your plan.

Deciding Which Positions are Critical

So, how do you decide which positions are critical? When assisting clients with developing their succession plans, SIGMA uses our Critical Role Identification Questionnaire to help management teams focus their planning efforts.

The questionnaire suggests five relevant criteria to use in evaluating which positions are critical.

  1. Urgency of succession: How soon is the position expected to be vacant? Consider retirement plans, impending departures, or potential promotions.
  2. Impact on business operations: How would day-to-day operations or business revenue be affected if this role was suddenly vacant? Positions that play a central role in core business functions or revenue generation should be considered critical. 
  3. Unique skillset or knowledge base: Does this role require skills or knowledge that would be difficult to replace, or demand specific experience in your company or industry?
  4. Internal bench strength: Are there qualified internal candidates who could step into this role today? If there are already individuals within your organization who possess the necessary background and expertise, that significantly reduces the risk associated with a vacancy in this position.
  5. Availability of external candidates: Would it be difficult to find qualified external hires to replace this position? If a role requires skills that are scarce in the job market or has specific requirements that are challenging to fulfill externally, it should be considered critical. 

In addition, you may want to add other criteria to address your company’s specific needs or situation. For example, can you foresee an urgent need to replace a particular position, such as one where the incumbent will retire soon? Is there a role with a high risk of turnover, such as a very stressful position, one that’s in high demand externally, or is not competitively compensated? Deciding which positions are critical ensures that succession efforts are focused on positions that have the most significant impact on business continuity. 

Critical Role Identification Questionnaire

How to Use the Critical Role Identification Questionnaire

1. List all critical positions 

Use the Critical Role Identification Questionnaire to list all the roles in your company that the management team feels are most important to operations. While your C-suite leaders and senior managers may immediately jump to mind, it’s important to take an enterprise-wide approach and look for lynchpin roles at other levels as well. It’s better to be exhaustive in this step and use the evaluation process to reduce the list to just the most critical positions.

2. Evaluate positions against the questionnaire’s criteria

The management team should then evaluate all the listed positions against the criteria on the form. It’s important to keep the position description in mind during your evaluation, and not just focus on the person currently in the role. Strong business leaders often take on additional responsibilities outside their role, but you want to base your evaluation on the criticality of the core functions.

3. Build a shortlist of key positions

By adding up the totals from all the questionnaires, you’ll be able to develop a shortlist of key positions to consider for your succession plan. The management team should then take the time to discuss each of the criteria for all the shortlisted roles to pare the list down to the top role or roles to focus on initially.

Smaller companies should select one position to concentrate on to begin their succession plan while larger companies may choose to move ahead with up to five positions. Starting small will make the process easier to manage and improve your likelihood of creating a successful plan. It will also give you the chance to learn and gain insights, and enable you to build momentum as you move forward to expand the scope of your succession plan.

Next Step: Build Success Profiles

Once you have identified the critical positions in your organization, you are ready to build Success Profiles. Check out this next step in SIGMA’s six-step succession planning process below.

Building Success Profiles to Understand Your Organizations Needs - Sigma Assessment Systems


SIMPLE Succession Planning Certification

Talk to Glen.

If you’re interested in learning more about SIGMA’s succession planning services, Glen is the guy for you. He knows our material inside and out, and can tell you first-hand stories of the work we’ve done with our clients. And just so you know, Glen doesn’t do sales – he does solutions. That might mean answering your questions, giving you our best tips and tricks, or pointing you to our FREE resources. Send him an email or give him a call! He’d love to chat with you.

[i] 2014 Report on Senior Executive Succession Planning and Talent Development. Institute of Executive Development and the Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.

[ii] Time for a more holistic approach to talent risk. KPMG International. 2013

[iii] Business succession planning: Cultivating enduring value: Volume 3 Developing future leaders. Deloitte.

About the Author

Glen Harrison

Vice President

Glen oversees SIGMA’s sales and marketing activities. As a skilled presenter and trainer, he has designed and delivered engaging and entertaining workshops and webinars to help leaders and HR professionals enhance their understanding of how our products and services can be used to realize potential within their organizations.