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Succession Planning

by Athena Professional | November 06, 2015

Jane & I were delighted to be asked to deliver a workshop at the LawNet conference on the topic of “succession planning”. 

At first blush, it’s not the most demanding of subjects, but the longer you spend looking at it, the more facets of people strategy you see at play.  It is a good example of an aspect of managing people that is not rocket science, but is really hard to do well and can have a hugely positive effect if used to its full potential.


Nicola Jones
Nicola Jones


What is succession planning?

Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing potential future leaders or senior managers, and other individuals, to fill business critical positions, in the short or the long-term.

As ever the starting point is strategy.  What is the firm trying to achieve in the next, say, five years?  How will it look?  What will people in the firm be doing and how will they be doing it?  Being really clear about business strategy will inform all aspects of your people strategy, and is critical to succession planning.

The firm’s strategic vision can only be implemented effectively with the right people doing the right work.  A lot of firms tend to replace like with like when vacancies crop up.  It may be easier in the short-term to recruit or promote people who are known quantities and are perceived as being the “right sort”.  The risk is that those people may not possess the attributes that the business really needs.  Doing what you have always done, gets you what you have always got!  Succession planning presents a brilliant opportunity to create change.

What's the key?


Jane Green-Armitage
Jane Green-Armitage

Define the role first.  It is surprising how many times firms will just back-fill roles.  There is still quite a strong “time-served” mentality in the legal sector, which means that opportunities to re-think structure are often missed.  Some firms will still promote on the basis of technical legal ability only, which is fine if that is what the role demands, but few senior roles involve solely legal responsibilities.  Begin by thinking about what the business needs and how that is reflected in job roles, rather than shoe-horning a person into an “old” role. 


Here we have the first major over-lap with another area of people strategy; organisational design.  Thinking the unthinkable and considering, for example, changing departmental structures can free-up a business to deliver services in new ways, be more profitable and offer better client service.  Of course, it also means equipping people to work in new ways.  Happily a range of skills are now recognised by the SRA as being elements of “competence to practise”, so development of all kinds can be recognised.

Is there any magic involved?

The “magical” element of succession planning is knowing what values, behaviours and expertise you need people in the business to possess.  Once you have your job role sorted out, get someone who will match your business requirements to fill the role; not someone you happen to know, who really deserves it or who seems like a nice sort.  Defining competencies using them effectively is the second area of over-lap with other aspects of people strategy.  Knowing what makes your business tick and how you want people to operate means you can get the right fit for your new post.

Who is going to do this new job?

Look at who you’ve got and what is coming up.  Look in good time.  Give people with potential the chance to develop skills and grow in confidence to fill forth-coming roles.  Use performance management (over-lap with other elements of people strategy number three!) to spot gaps in ability and take action accordingly.  Manage your talent (over-lap number four) by giving people opportunities to contribute and flourish (L&D – number five).  Generate evidence of success for people, so that they are in a position to make convincing applications for promotion in due course.

Having done all that, you might still find that actually you do not have anyone in-house who fits the bill.  If you are recruiting (over-lap number six) then all that work on role, culture and development will pay off in a big way, because you will be in a much better position to work out what you need and spot people who have what it takes to do well in your business.

Five steps to succession-planning

  • Identify the future critical functions and roles for the firm to achieve the strategy
  • Be clear about the values, behaviours and expertise those people need to possess
  • Identify potential successors
  • Assess your talent pool to identify
    • Current performance &/or potential in terms of expertise, values and skills required
    • Gaps in values knowledge or skills
    • Development plans to fill those gaps
    • Identify any recruitment necessary
    • Measure results – capture evidence of success

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