We’ve all been there — a valued team member resigns, and suddenly there’s no one to take their place. 

The unplanned vacancy of a key employee can have many negative consequences. At the very least, it can result in the loss of important skills and institutional knowledge. It can also affect a team’s ability to function and, in some cases, the bottom line of the business. Unplanned departures also lead to expenses to hire and train new employees needed to fill the gaps.

In situations like this, we often find ourselves scrambling to come up with a plan of action while searching for a replacement. Is there an alternative? Yes — the solution is succession planning.

What is succession planning?

First, it is important to learn exactly what succession planning is and how it affects your company. 

You might think that succession planning is only for C-level executives at large organizations. However, business succession planning is a strategy for identifying and fostering future leaders at your company — not just at the top but for major roles at all levels.

In fact, succession planning contains many components: you pinpoint succession candidates and take a hard look at your employee engagement and company culture to better protect the future of your business — and don’t forget to formulate a backup plan of action. 

Identify potential succession candidates

One succession-planning process example could be the consideration of the transformation potential of your current employees to plan for future successes. Have you conducted one-on-one meetings with the employees identified as potential succession candidates?  

Identify your key employees by including the different departments and significant stakeholders in the discussion and together determine which employees exhibit leadership traits, are invested in the company and demonstrate solid communications skills. Then, once they are determined, plan one-on-one meetings to discuss their career goals and future at the company and outline plans for career development, cross-training among departments, knowledge transfer and how it will occur.  

Are their career goals aligned with your company? Have you received feedback from HR and all department managers and senior management? And did they assess current employees’ potential training needs, skill gaps and career development goals? Communication is essential throughout the process of progressing forward.

Create an environment of growth opportunities

If you have identified a future leader, you want to make sure they stick around. Find various ways to engage with them and develop mutual trust and confidence. Make time for frequent check-ins, share important insights and listen to their feedback. Also, pay attention to ways you can help. Ask yourself questions like, "Is coaching needed to improve their skills?" In turn, they will feel you are invested in their future.

This is your moment to show these employees how their job advances can make a difference in the company’s vision of the future. Identify the next steps to achieve their career development goals.  

True employee engagement turns into a learning experience for both leaders and their employees because, when there is an exchange of ideas and active listening occurs, the outcome is valuable. And it becomes easier to collaborate, problem solve and plan together.

Perhaps opportunities will present themselves, such as learning new skills through external training or special projects that are coming down the pike. Altogether, this will lead to a happier, healthier workplace and a strong organizational culture.   

Have a Plan B

Although you may have identified the next-in-line employee to eventually move into a high-level position, always keep an eye out for developing talent. Also, evaluate current talent and formulate a contingency plan so you are not putting all your eggs in one basket. After all, the world is unpredictable.

It is wise to map potential roles and skills since there are risks and opportunities associated with hiring and retaining employees. This might include employees interested in making a lateral move. 

Employers should discuss retention strategies to keep crucial staff with key stakeholders, such as senior management, department managers and HR. 

Moving forward

The succession-planning process is never completed, and it should be continuously reviewed and updated as important changes occur in the organization. Although it’s crucial to identify the future leaders of tomorrow and other key positions, there are strategic processes one must consider.

As the employer, it is in your best interest to “take the bull by the horns” and familiarize yourself with the facts about succession planning. Arm yourself with this knowledge, discuss with other stakeholders and incorporate best practices to ensure better protection of your biggest investments — your business and your employees. And you will be ready, for the most part, to take on whatever comes your way.