Business Leaders  

Succession Planning: think outcome, not process

When Apple faced the unenviable task of replacing the iconic Steve Jobs, the art of succession planning came under the spotlight like never before, so what has Apple, and other companies learnt as a result
 Shedding light on the succession planning process

By Sue Brooks, Managing Director, Ochre House

In a fast paced environment where an organisation’s people drive its success, having a plan in place to fill critical roles immediately when top talent falls off the employment ladder is vital.

This, allied with an enduring skill shortage and lack of complete confidence in the leadership potential within the existing workforce, has brought succession planning to the forefront of business leaders’ minds. 

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However, as we’ve seen from high profile examples over recent years – including the dramatic impact losing Steve Jobs had on Apple – inadequate succession plans can have a seriously damaging effect on a business.

But with talent becoming a global resource, a disconnect between HR and line managers, the continued focus on a ‘processed’ exercise and an all too common lack of skills data, succession planning doesn’t yet provide the strategic business support it should.

When we look at the Apple example specifically, it’s clear that a process-orientated approach isn’t always the best choice. While one cannot comment on the full details of the organisation’s succession planning decision, when you consider their choice of a new leader – originally the Chief Operating Officer – it’s possible that the decision was based on the individual’s original role and job title, rather than their personal traits and skills.

That’s not to say that Tim Cook hasn’t been an effective leader, he has had a degree of success, but it’s perhaps fair to suggest that Steve Jobs is a hard act for anyone to follow.

Jobs was a charismatic individual who really brought the Apple brand to life. His presentation skills were exceptional, his talent pipelining and management was top notch and his business intuition was almost incomparable. When you look at these traits in Cook, it’s almost a comparison of chalk and cheese. So could Apple have had more success if they had removed the process and looked at the outcome they desired; a figure who could speak, lead and operate like Jobs?

Beyond the Apple example, there are numerous businesses who feel their succession plans are inadequate. In fact, in a recent benchmarking survey carried out by Ochre House we found that 40 percent of the senior, global HRD’s interviewed did not feel their plan was fit for purpose.  But why are so many organisations getting this process wrong?

In a recent think tank we held as part of our HR Network, the international HRDs in attendance agreed there were a number of concerns and barriers to successful succession. In the first instance, simply defining what a succession plan encompasses creates a problem.

There was a general consensus that there is no clear definition of what succession planning should cover; at what level it should be implemented, what roles need to be incorporated, and how much overlap this needs to have with the day-to-day talent management process. 

Currently, succession plans are focused on filling roles, but to be truly strategic we need to look at developing individuals into these new roles through talent management.

Tied into this, there was a common theme identified of transparency, or a lack thereof. It is often assumed that high potentials are engaged and ready to move on, but the majority of delegates made the observation that those on the succession plan were not consulted.

If this is being carried out as a simple ‘names in boxes’ procedure, the likelihood is that it will have little strategic value. We can’t forget that succession planning is a people process and it needs to connect with the individuals involved.

In order to highlight just how this strategy has become process-orientated, there were concerns voiced that succession planning is not developed in line with the business strategy. In fact, many delegates reported that the ‘process’ is aligned to what past success looks like, not what the business needs in the future.

As the group came together to address how to move forward and overcome the barriers to succession planning, there were a number of ‘break-through’ moments identified which could lead the way for best practice succession planning.

In recognition of a desire to reconnect with the people involved there needs to be a level of ‘employee empowerment’ in the process. One fantastic example given involved a trial whereby the managers were removed from the succession plan process, with the responsibility falling to the staff themselves to define where they are hoping to move.

Interestingly, the results were not what the senior management team had expected. Not only were the views of the employees completely different than those at board level, but this innovative approach also identified some key experience and skills which were not being utilised. This is a great example of how transparency can help overcome some of the key barriers to succession planning and indeed make the strategy more accurate.

It was also agreed by all delegates that a review of the roles which fit into the succession plan is necessary. The talent risk doesn’t lie solely at senior level; critical roles can be at any position in the hierarchy and it is these roles which need to be planned around. And it’s not just individuals who need to be considered either. A team’s dynamic will usually be guided by one or two leading figures – if you were to lose one of these, the whole group will be impacted.

It’s clear that there is a long way still to go before we can start showcasing best practice examples of succession planning. But, as the Apple example shows, it is imperative businesses get this right.


If organisations get stuck in a narrow process, they will record little success. In order to move forward businesses should be looking at the ideal outcome they want to achieve and work backwards from there.

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