I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are seldom important, and the important are seldom urgent.

Dwight Eisenhower

In a survey of global executives, Deloitte finds that 86% of leaders consider succession planning “urgent” or “important,” but only 14% believe they do it well.[1] In fact, leadership is identified as the top human capital concern and the largest “readiness gap” across organizations. How is it that leaders understand the importance and need for succession planning, yet companies repeatedly fail to invest in a succession planning process?

Over the last 50 years SIGMA has worked with thousands of organizations across North America, and what leaders continuously tell us is that they struggle to plan for tomorrow because they can hardly keep up with the demands of today. The propensity for urgency taking precedence over impact is hardly new, and it’s been addressed by everyone from Stanford psychologists to the 34th President of the United States. Let’s take a look at what they have to say, and how it applies to the succession planning process.

The Eisenhower Principle

In 1954, during a speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, President Eisenhower quoted Dr J. Roscoe Miller, saying: “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This became known as the “Eisenhower Principle,”[2] and was said to be how the former general of the United States Army, Allied Forces Supreme Commander, and first supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) [3] prioritized his tasks.

In the context of succession planning, the Eisenhower Principle can be used to explain why so many companies fail to build strong leadership pipelines, despite recognizing their necessity and value. Succession planning is always important, but it only becomes urgent when positions are vacated. At this point it’s too late to plan; companies need to resort to replacement hiring, which must often be done externally. Developing an internal talent pool requires a significant investment of time and effort. That is to say, it is a future-focused strategic process. These processes are rarely urgent, but they are always important. As such, they require disciplined execution and prioritization to avoid being eclipsed by the many urgent tasks that high level management will inevitably encounter in their day-to-day operations.

Urgency and Importance

To understand and apply the Eisenhower Principle, it’s important to know what qualifies as “urgent,” and what qualifies as “important.”

  • Important activities are those which relate directly to an organization’s mission and vision. They are often strategic, long-term tasks with little immediate return on investment. Succession planning qualifies as an important activity because it will benefit the longevity and stability of a company.
  • Urgent activities are those which demand our attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate. Urgent activities are often less strategic and more task-oriented than impactful activities.

Applying the Principle

eisenhower principle

Succession planning is an important, but often not very urgent task. That means the best way to go about it is to schedule the planning process (Quadrant 2). Make time for meetings in which you review critical roles in your company, discuss promising succession candidates, and establish development plans. Finally, consider hiring a third-party consultant to guide you through the planning process and hold you accountable to achieving your goals.

eisenhower principle

Ready to Get Started?

Are you ready to start prioritizing your succession plan? At SIGMA, we offer custom succession planning, consulting, workshops, and resources. Take a look at our services here, or contact us below for more information on how we can help your leaders prepare for tomorrow.

[1] Stockton, H., Dongrie, V., Neveras, N. (March 7, 2014). Leaders at all levels: Close the gap between hype and readiness. Deloitte Insights. Retrieved from https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2014/hc-trends-2014-leaders-at-all-levels.html.

[2] MindTools. (200

[3] Eisenhower. (2020). Introducing the Eisenhower Matrix. Eisenhower. Retrieved from https://www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/.