Thought Leadership


Deffet Group’s thought leaders regularly produce educational content, keeping our firm current on industry trends and research in aging services, human services, and best practices in not-for-profit executive search. Our senior leaders participate as regular attendees and presenters at national and state-level LeadingAge and other not-for-profit association conferences. To discuss how our firm can provide your organization with personalized educational sessions for board members and senior leadership teams, please contact Elizabeth Feltner at


Putting the "Success" in Your Succession Planning

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D.

While most people would agree that any organization should have a written succession plan that takes short-term and long-term needs into consideration, according to Cutting Edge Information, 67% of organizations do not currently have any formal succession planning process, and 45% of the world’s largest organizations have no meaningful process in place for developing their CEO. At the same time, only 24% of organizations are confident in their ability to staff leadership positions during the next 5 years (Watson-Wyatt). Although many CEOs express concern about the lack of bench strength in their organizations, obviously there is an alarming gap between our current knowledge and our current practices when it comes to preparing for the future leadership within most of our organizations. With demographics this compelling, you might easily ask, “Why aren’t most organizations utilizing succession plans to promote their own success?”

Time and resources are the most commonly cited obstacles to successful succession planning. Usually, the day-to-day demands of running the organization supersede the organization’s ability to invest energy in succession planning. Yet, without some type of plan to build bench strength and maintain a consistent, high-quality level of leadership, organizations risk losing their competitive edge and miss growth opportunities that ultimately, may put their success in today’s marketplace at risk. What follows are some basic principles to follow to help you avoid the pitfall of knowing a principle but failing to put that principle into practice.

S: Summarize the existing resources available to you. Primarily, it is crucial that you determine at the outset the amount of time you have available and are willing to invest in not only succession planning, but succession development. Creating a working “plan” may only take a short period of time, but for any plan to be successful, it must be developed by following up with consistent, concrete action. We’ve seen this play out in our personal lives on a regular basis: we plan how we are going to engage in a regular fitness regimen, we make a plan to lose weight, but oftentimes our plans become an end in themselves rather than just the very first step to actualizing real growth. If leadership development is not enough of a priority to establish a scheduled amount of time to invest in it, the plan will sit in a drawer and gather dust, and therefore, have no chance of bringing successful results. The goal needs to involve developing your leadership resources, not merely planning for how you will do this at some distant date.

U: Understand and record in writing the current CEO’s function in the organization and the value associated with this position. Enlist the aid of the current leaders for this task. Have them start by writing their own job descriptions. Be specific and directed in your questions. On a short list, questions could include: “What do you spend most of your time doing? What do you do particularly well? If someone were to have to fill in for you for one week, what might the breakdown of that week look like task-wise?” Suggest that your leadership staff keep a log of what they do from day to day over the course of a few weeks. Then sit down together and craft an updated, fairly detailed job description.

C: Consider the existing personnel within the organization and determine which people, if any, could perform the duties of the existing leader(s). Look at the three or four most critical elements of the CEO’s job and select the main skills required to be successful in the role. Most CEOs will need to examine a candidate’s skills in areas including, but not necessarily limited to: leadership, marketing, finances, and operations. What employees seem to handle the task of actively managing people well? Do they know when to step back and let their team members do things they can already do very well? How well are they able to maintain a sense of balance? Are these people in the organization you consider to be visionaries? A CEO often spends a good deal of time deeply involved in strategic thinking, so this attribute, too, is one that should be central to the selection process. Finally, ask yourself or your current leadership team: Are we moving these people through a series of positions and levels of responsibility that have built the kind of trust and credibility that we need? One of the primary challenges is to identify key talent while maintaining an awareness that you need to also forecast and place that talent against your current and future organizational needs.

C: Cultivate an attitude of self-assessment within those individuals who you might consider as successors. This means looking for individuals who can genuinely be honest with themselves. The assessment should include questions that help individuals evaluate both strengths and weaknesses in key leadership areas. Suggested questions include:

  • What are my strengths and weakness as a manager? What tasks do I perform well, and what tasks should I delegate to others? When I think about overall responsibilities, what seems to be an equitable distribution percentage-wise between myself and the other members of my team?
  • Do I have the perspective to drive a balanced vision for the company? If not, what perspective do I need to add to my current level of experience?
  • What would I need to learn if I were going to become CEO?
  • What kind of help will I need to be a good CEO?

Having current staff assess their abilities raises their awareness that they are considered vital to the future success of your organization. People generally are seeking a career, not just a job, and those who feel they have a career path have a greater chance of not only staying with, but also becoming more personally invested in growing with their existing employer. Further, if an employer is giving current high-potential staff members the opportunities to work on things and develop their individual strengths, they are far more likely to get there than if they are left to independently self-assess and self-develop. While some individuals may be like cream, and naturally rise to the top, many others who may be extremely qualified and competent people will better recognize their strengths once they are given the opportunity to do this under current leadership’s direction.

E: Evaluate the match between the existing job description and potential successor’s self-assessment and develop a plan based on the gaps. Consider how this person is going to grow and be able to meet the necessary skill base for an executive leadership position. This will enable you, once you identify high-potential employees, to determine whether the development stages of succession planning are on target. Recognizing gaps between a potential candidate’s current strengths and the position needs does not entail a “pass-fail” procedure. It is simply an important step for these high-potential people to take. What can evolve is a readiness assessment. When will this person be ready to move up? Once weaknesses are identified, you can put together a developmental plan to overcome them. In short, conducting an evaluation at this stage will enable you to most effectively develop the existing talent.

S: Start maintaining a list of means for conducting an outside search should you find your need for succession planning requires others’ help. You may find that while there are individuals who could successfully develop into key leaders over time, you do not have the internal resources necessary to fill a position should it become vacant in the near future. If you lack the resources to successfully assess and groom candidates and move your search process from planning to development, this is the time to familiarize yourself with the search firm best suited to meet your level of need. While executive search firms are just one option that an organization has available, if your criteria justifies turning to an outside firm for help, the benefits of doing so can far outweigh the dangers of hiring or promoting the most available candidate, rather than the most qualified candidate.

S: Solidify your awareness of where you are in the succession planning process. Once you have taken the above steps, you are in an excellent position to determine whether or not grooming the candidates you have that may be worthy of advancement is a sufficient succession measure at this time. Knowledge is power. Once you have a clear understanding of the resources and high-performing candidates you have within your grasp, you are on your way to developing successors in your key leadership positions, whether from within your existing candidate pool or from beyond your organization’s doors.

About the Author
Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D. photo

Elizabeth Feltner, M.A., A.B.D., is Vice President of Deffet Group, Inc. She works collaboratively with clients nationwide to identify and retain executive leaders and advance organizational success. An accomplished public speaker for employers and national conferences, frequent topics include succession planning, on-boarding, and leadership development.