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Succession Planning 101 - Should You Ever Pre-Name a Successor in Business?

Two big questions that reside at the intersection of succession planning, retention and employee relations:

1.  Should you tell employees broadly if they are a part of a formalized succession plan?


2.  Once you've locked into an internal "next up" candidate to take over an important position, if and when it's vacated, should you tell the targeted successor?  Should you tell his or his peers?

These are interesting questions that are brought to mind by an emerging trend in college sports to pre-name successors and create "head coaches in waiting" at major college powers. 

More on the trend from the Washington Post:

"Texas is one of a handful of schools that have utilized the "coach-in-waiting" tag in recent years. As the practice of hiring head coaches has become increasingly complicated and the benefits provided by the appearance of long-term stability have become more diverse, Florida State, Oregon, Kentucky and Purdue also have developed succession plans to deal with upcoming or eventual changeovers.

"It seemed to us that it was such a problem to go through all that [trouble] when the program's in good shape, and that you can train somebody from the inside and have a seamless kind of transition when the time came," Dodds said. "So if the right person was in the ranks, it seemed to us that it was best to keep them there and grow them and put them in the position when the time came."

The recent trend of college football programs naming coaches-in-waiting began in July 2005, when longtime Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez announced he would retire at season's end and turn over the program to defensive coordinator Bret Bielema."

So, what's the application to the business world?  Moving back to the two questions at the beginning of the post, I'm a big believer in telling all the folks who are part of a succession plan that they're being groomed for future roles.  I realize there are some have/have not issues embedded in this for the folks who aren't included in the formal succession plan, but if retention of your best talent is the goal, don't you have to tell them that they're special, that they're different?

That said, I'd never be willing to tell the individual I thought was leading the pack that they're "first up" and the heir-apparent.  I'd be too concerned about the rest of the field (as well as the heir apparent) losing their edge and not competing as hard, and I'd be really concerned about the high potentials, who weren't leading the pack, choosing to look elsewhere.

On this one, I'd channel Jack Welch.  Tell them they're special, then let them compete.  Try to keep them inside the lines and don't let it get too nasty.

Keep your options open.  You never know when another person in the succession plan is going to emerge with special qualities, or if you'll need to go outside for fresh blood.  Naming an "heir apparent" runs counter to both those potential needs.

It'll be interesting to see how many of the "head coaches in waiting" actually make it to the throne...


Chris - Manager's Sandbox


What a fantastic and interesting way to discuss this topic. Do you think there could be any negative cultural consequences from the "let them fight it out" approach? (maybe that's the kumbaya loving dirty hippie coming out)

- Chris

Dan McCarthy

Chris –
I agree. You shouldn’t name an heir apparent. For all the reasons you’ve mentioned. I’ve seen it happen, and it creates some bizarre unintended side effects.
However, it’s OK to tell someone they are seen as having potential to move into a larger role and are being prepared for it in case it happens.

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