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Dropping the Baton: 10 Succession Planning Mistakes That Will Wreck Your Business

6 min read

by Matt Poepsel, PhD

It started out as a typical summer evening. My family and I were making the arduous trek across the street to my in-laws’ house for dinner. We were halfway across the yard when my 14-year-old son quietly asked me, “Hey, Dad…wanna race?”

His query took me back to a similar summer night some 30+ years ago when I had issued the same challenge to my father. He obliged, and I’ll never forget the sense of pride and accomplishment I felt when I emerged victorious. Don’t let the Glacier Glasses and London Fog jacket fool you, folks. This young buck was now a man.

Tonight it was déjà vu all over again.

My son lined up next to me at the starting line. He’s a scrawny and barefoot lad if ever there was one. I spied a distant mailbox turned finish line. My bride and eldest daughter stood on the side of the street brimming with nervous anticipation.

It was on.

As I crouched into my ready stance, I hoped he wouldn’t be too disappointed when I denied him that coming-of-age feeling. Someday perhaps, but not tonight. I’m still a spectacular physical specimen after all. There’s just a lot more of me than there used to be.


Three seconds later, I saw my son’s narrow backside pulling further and further away. It wasn’t even close.

The baton had been passed.

In that moment, it became very clear to me. Father Time is a real mother.

As with some business owners, I had become so preoccupied with my day-to-day activities that I had failed to consider the longer term reality of natural evolution. Unfortunately, this failure poses significant risks to overall business health, so let’s take a look at these ten all-too-common succession planning mistakes so we’re better prepared to avoid them:

1. Not owning it. For proper succession planning to actually happen, somebody’s got to own it. A question I get all the time on this subject is, “Who’s in the best position to own succession — executives or HR?” If you have strategic, strong, business-minded talent professionals, then they are. If HR is tactical and more focused on benefits and compliance rather than your actual business, then you need to do it. (Either that, or change your partnership with HR.)

2. Relying on past performance. It’s natural to think of your current bench of top performers as the best candidates for future leadership positions. They very well may be, but recognize that the alternative can also be true. The fact is that higher-level positions may require undeveloped skills or personal characteristics that are absent among those kicking butt in their current roles. Be crystal clear about the demands of the next level, and be objective when assessing your current talent.

3. Having a one track mind. There are actually two types of succession planning targets. The more obvious of the two is identifying could-be successors for specific incumbents or positions. The less obvious is the establishment and cultivation of talent pools – collections of high potential individuals who may fill a more specific need at some point in the future. You need both.

4. Not letting yourself get emotional. If you’re going to be in the people business, you’re going to get emotions at work. Understand what drives your people as this is the lens with which they will look at succession planning. Leadership isn’t a numbers game. Account for individual, personal differences among successors for optimal results.

5. Looking outside-in. If you don’t have strong professional development plans in place, you’re going to be looking outside your organization for future leadership in key functions. What too few owners recognize, however, is that each new outsider presents some risk of changing the culture of the organization. Account for that very real risk in your development ROI, and you may feel differently about development investments.

6. Not starting early enough. As soon as the onboarding of a new employee is over, it’s time to bring in the stretch goals. Don’t be afraid to see how high your employees can fly. When you make this a normal matter of course, succession planning and grooming is more natural as its time comes. Marshall Goldsmith touched on this when he wrote, “Plans do not develop anyone — only development experiences develop people.” Give all of your employees these experience opportunities and your entire organization will be the better for it.

7. Not keeping score. Lord Kelvin said, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Since then, he’s contributed absolutely zero to talent management. Even so, we can do him proud by measuring the effectiveness of our succession efforts. One great metric is the percentage of higher-level positions filled by internal versus external candidates. Grab a baseline, improve your current efforts, and validate any resulting lift in the results.

8. Not adding it up. There’s a critical equation whereby learning + mentoring + coaching = growth. Grooming successors requires all three, and these are distinct development activities. Take it from Alexandra Levit who notes that, “Great leaders are created, not born.”

9. Making assumptions. Be careful not to thrust a more senior position onto a peak performer without having discussed it first. Doing so may backfire if the fit and career interests aren’t inline. In fact, this can make matters worse if you end up with two holes in your organization after a voluntary turnover happens. There’s often no going back following a high profile “promotion”.

10. Not facing reality. There’s a scene in The Matrix where Agent Smith has Neo in a headlock on the subway tracks. There’s a sharp wail of an oncoming train, which Smith punctuates by saying, “That is the sound of inevitability.” Succession in your organization is going to happen. It’s your choice whether to be proactive about it or to do your best to scramble as you react to it.

Things change as time passes on, but we’re not powerless to do anything about it.
We can acknowledge reality. We can prepare. In doing so, we can protect what we’ve built.

For me, the only thing damaged on race night was my pride. For business owners, watching a steady drop in sales, an erosion of market share, the rise of a bitter competitor, infighting among employees and other nightmare scenarios are much more painful.

With so much at stake, please don’t drop the baton when it comes to planning for the future of your business.

Want us to dive deeper into how you can succeed at succession planning? Just say so! We’ll be happy to create an eBook or webinar to explore this topic further.


Matt Poepsel, PhD is the author of Expand the Circle: Enlightened Leadership for Our New World of Work and host of the Lead the People podcast. He serves as Vice President & Godfather of Talent Optimization at The Predictive Index. He holds a PhD in Psychology, an MBA, and a Harvard Business School Certificate of Management Excellence. Matt has more than 25 years of leadership experience as a software executive and consultant. He’s also a US Marine, an Ironman triathlon finisher, and a student of Buddhist philosophy.

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