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One of the ultimate outcomes of exceptional leadership development is a highly effective senior leadership team.

Outstanding senior leaders don’t just happen without strong leadership development plans.

With a great leader at the helm, it’s easy to put off thinking about their successor for another day, but this can be dangerous. Every CEO’s (or other C-level executive’s) tenure comes to an end eventually. Being prepared for that time can make the difference between a smooth leadership transition that keeps the company on the road to success, and a painful transition that can result in damage to morale and difficulty retaining strong employees.

Having a leadership succession plan is absolutely essential. While you can’t plan for every contingency, you can plan for many of them, and you should do so well before a beloved leader retires. Here are five key elements of a leadership succession plan.

1. Transparency

Succession planning is a sensitive issue, and balancing transparency with confidentiality is mandatory. Define upfront who needs to know what, and when they need to know it. Work with top leadership to agree on which types of information can be shared, and which should be considered confidential.

Keeping everything secret can backfire, however. When people know only that succession planning is going on behind the scenes, gossip and intrigue often follow. Key people may be tempted to quit and work elsewhere. People being considered for future leadership roles should know their status, and leadership succession planning should not be a completely closed-door process.

2. Fairness

Locking someone in as a successor solely because it is “their turn” can sour colleague relationships. At the same time, if someone appears to expect to be promoted to a leadership position when they are not, it’s only fair to let them know (in confidence, of course). You can work with these people to help them develop other paths toward greater responsibility and job satisfaction.

The person or persons you want to eventually take over top leadership roles should be people who have earned it through excellence, and not because they fit some preconceived notion of what leadership “looks like.” Promoting people the way you’ve always done, solely because you’ve always done it that way is a sure path to stagnation.

3. Consideration for Culture

Future leaders must understand and be committed to the organizational culture.

The importance of corporate culture cannot be overstated. Think about potential candidates for future top leadership roles. Do these people embody qualities you prize most in your organizational culture? Do they show promise for helping culture to continue to evolve in the direction you want? Do they understand how important organizational culture is?

Leaders who do what they’re supposed to while being tone-deaf to corporate culture will eventually run into problems, including higher employee turnover and lower morale. These can be difficult problems to overcome.

4. Training and Coaching

Identifying leaders and then assuming they’ll somehow rise to expectations and train themselves is absurd. If your company doesn’t have the type of leadership development programs necessary to prepare people for top leadership positions, then you need to develop these programs as soon as possible.

Likewise, providing coaching for potential future leaders can be a valuable investment. Traditional, one-on-one, in-person leadership coaching is usually reserved for people who are already in top positions because this type of leadership coaching can be expensive. But there are other options, like managers as coaches, mentorships, and online coaching that may be worth exploring.

5. Contingency Planning

You must have a backup plan. Even the best-planned leadership successions don’t always work out. If you have pinned all your hopes on a particular person and then something happens so that the transition doesn’t work out, you’re faced with starting over.

Don’t just identify one person for succession to a top leadership position. Offer leadership development opportunities to multiple promising leaders and continue preparing them. Consider cross-training future leaders so that if one promotion doesn’t work out, you’re not left scrambling. In other words, don’t put all your leadership eggs into one basket, because things don’t always happen as expected.

People tend not to like thinking about leadership succession. It involves more emotion than most business activities, and it can be fraught with politics. But leaving everything to chance can be disastrous. Identifying potential leaders early, offering leadership development opportunities, and ensuring that more than one person is ready to take over after the departure of a top leader can help ensure smoother leadership transitions and less disruption as your organization enters a new era.

If you’re interested in learning more about leadership, coaching, and organizational culture, I invite you to check out my books.

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