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How to Keep Your Succession Pipeline from Springing a Leak

The on-again-off-again drama of Sam Altman’s role as OpenAI’s CEO in November 2023 spurred a flurry of commentary about the importance of succession planning. While most companies aren’t led by such high-profile figures—whose departures spur hundreds of employees to threaten resignation—every organization needs a sound succession plan and pipeline.  

Yet, most succession plans are built on pipelines that are highly susceptible to leaks. 

Identifying vulnerabilities in your succession pipeline can help to minimize the damaging consequences (including disrupted operations and derailed plans) of unexpected leadership departures or even gradual turnover. Those insights will then inform the best actions to take to de-risk your succession pipeline and ensure your organization will not only survive, but truly thrive. 

Why Traditional Succession Planning Falls Short 

Imagine your leadership team members are asked to each write down the name of the individual best suited to take on their role at a moment’s notice—the proverbial “what would happen if you got hit by a bus” scenario. When the exercise is complete, you see that the same two or three individuals have been identified as successors to the entire leadership team. Of course, that’s not feasible. 

While this situation might sound far-fetched, it actually happened at a company I was advising. If the same exercise was run at many other companies, I suspect the results might be similar. 

Though most organizations appreciate the need to thoughtfully plan how to replace departing leaders, many approach the planning process in a way that inadvertently creates a vulnerable succession pipeline. The following are the most visible signs that the organization’s succession planning approach will yield a risky pipeline.   

  • It’s informal, rather than structured. Sometimes individual leaders have a loose idea of who could succeed them, but that’s not sufficient. In the absence of a formal, structured planning approach, companies often become over-reliant on a few naturally strong leaders and fail to do the difficult work of preparing a broader group of individuals to step into higher-level roles. 
  • It’s static, rather than dynamic. Addressing the topic of succession planning at the annual leadership off-site meeting is helpful. But if that’s the sum total of the effort, the business will end up with a static plan that only represents a snapshot in time. To keep up with constant change, succession planning needs to be just as dynamic as the organization and its environment. 
  • It’s done in isolation, without broad input. Sometimes a leader has a successor in mind—only to learn that their peers don’t share the same positive opinion of the individual’s capabilities or suitability for the role. Obtaining a 360-degree view of successor candidates ensures the organization makes these critical decisions based on broad, well-rounded input. 
  • It’s viewed as a document, not a program. Identifying a list of suitable successors is just the first step. The most successful organizations actively develop a succession pipeline that reduces risk. It’s difficult work, requiring the willingness to have tough conversations with potential candidates and the commitment to help high-potential (HIPO) leaders fill gaps and prepare for different roles.   
  • It takes a linear perspective, rather than a holistic view. Moving leaders along a linear progression, confined to one functional area, isn’t always the best way to develop a succession pipeline. Yet companies often view the development process through that lens. By failing to consider succession more holistically, they don’t develop leaders with broader perspectives, more diverse skillsets, greater versatility and agility, and the ability to lead the broader organization.

Strategies for Plugging Up the Succession Pipeline

Strategies like the following can help your organization avoid the risks and detrimental consequences of failing to properly prepare for leadership departures.

  • Create development opportunities. Potential leadership successors need the chance to broaden their horizons. That’s why many companies run rotational programs that move HIPO individuals through positions that cross functional boundaries. Beyond gaining knowledge about different organizational functions, they gain exposure to diverse ways of thinking and working. Though even high performers might struggle at first when pulled out of their comfort zone, a solid program of mentorship and other support can help them thrive. If a rotational program isn’t feasible due to your company’s size, consider implementing training programs that build cross-functional knowledge and expose individuals to new perspectives without requiring a wholesale job change.
  • Be intentional and transparent. When you tap a high performer for a special project or cross-functional job move, and one of your objectives is to develop a potential future successor, be candid about what you want them to gain from the experience. Explain that this is an opportunity to raise their profile, showcase their skills, broaden their perspective, and gain exposure to new ideas. If they understand the objective and what’s at stake, they might approach the change with a different mindset and embrace it as a learning opportunity.
  • Gain a third-party perspective. A professional skilled in leadership development can help you identify potential leaks in the pipeline and skill gaps in successors more objectively. One company believed it had a strong bench of middle managers primed to become the next VPs. With a leadership development professional’s guidance, they created a more formal competency model and assessed every HIPO manager against the competencies and skill requirements for the VP positions, as if they were external candidates. They were shocked to discover that most of those HIPOs fell far short of fitting the bill.
  • Make succession planning programmatic. A succession plan becomes a living document when it guides an ongoing program of establishing and nurturing a solid pipeline. That means not only creating intentional development opportunities, but also adjusting the plan as successor candidates move through those opportunities—and either rise to the challenge or don’t. Many organizations tap a skilled advisor to strengthen their HIPO programs by recommending and administering rigorous assessments, then providing customized coaching that responds to each individual’s needs.
  • Stay adaptable. Once you’ve developed an initial succession plan and pipeline, create a regular cadence of sessions to revisit, challenge, and adjust based on emerging issues or new input. For example, after a HIPO rock-star was promoted, did they flounder or flourish? Is an individual who previously went unnoticed now raising their hand for more responsibility? Has someone unexpectedly caught leadership’s attention by excelling at a special project or stepping in flawlessly during a crisis? A dynamic succession pipeline factors in constant inputs like these.

Today’s volatile environment increases the risk of getting caught up in the issue of the day, leaving little time and attention for succession planning. Yet, leaders will be poached by competitors, personal circumstances will change, and mergers and acquisitions will disrupt the organizational landscape. By taking a structured, dynamic approach to succession planning, you can de-risk your pipeline and ensure the stability of your leadership.


The Leadership Advisory Practice at Odgers Berndtson helps organizations discover and develop leaders, strengthen value-creating teams, and prepare for what’s next. Learn how our highly experienced assessors and coaches can help you and your team make a positive impact on your organization and those around you.  

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