In learning and development (L&D), we put a lot of focus on what happens after employees join an organization, from onboarding to identifying and closing skills gaps to providing continuous opportunities for growth — all of which are critical for individual and organizational success. However, many organizations are unprepared when employees leave the organization. As a result, unexpected resignations often leave L&D and human resources (HR) leaders fumbling in the dark. Effective succession planning is key.

Make a Game Plan

Today’s workers have ample opportunities for employment: As of March 2019, total job openings exceed the number of unemployed people by approximately 1 million. Organizations across industries are ripe for turnover, and the average separations rate (total separations out of average employment) in the U.S. was 44.3% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A strategic succession plan ensures that when a leader or high-performing contributor leaves, there’s a game plan.

A well thought-out succession plan builds “organizational strength,” says Anita Bowness, principal product manager for customer success at talent management software company Saba. “It ensures that you’ve got the right mix of skills and competencies, and people ready on the bench, when internal vacancies do happen.”

While executive-level succession plans are certainly necessary, Lilith Christiansen, vice president of onboarding solutions at SilkRoad Technology, says, “Many operational roles are critical to keep the lights on and have significant impacts on customer service.’”

To succeed in the future of work, she adds, “Organizations need to identify the critical positions within their business that directly impact its ability to produce revenue and profit — and this includes positions across the entire organization.” When organizations fail to create successions plans for employees outside of the C-suite, unknown risks and costs may arise down the road — which can sacrifice business continuity and diminish customer service.

Succession planning ensures that organizations are prepared for unexpected resignations and helps them track employee growth and development. As we enter a new decade of technological innovation, let’s look at how the succession planning process is being transformed by automation.

The Role of Technology

Technology is fundamentally revolutionizing the succession planning process. Artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and other emerging technologies can identify potential successors by providing data-driven insights on everything from productivity levels to leadership capabilities.

For example, Kronos Incorporated’s succession planning solution combines workforce management and human capital management (HCM) to help organizations manage their workforce from pre-hire through retirement, says Jessica Griffin, vice president of global product management. “The interactive dashboard simplifies succession planning by automatically tracking and showcasing key metrics [and] visualizing employee performance at the organization, team or individual employee level.” Additionally, Kronos’ AI for Managers and Employees (AIMEE) uses machine learning to analyze key employee data points and surface “critical insights,” including employee readiness and “flight risk,” Griffin says.

To identify strong successors, learning leaders should define key metrics before beginning the succession planning process. Bowness recommends using metrics based on the skills the business needs to be successful in the long term. Then, succession technology can identify which employees are excelling in those areas.

Learning leaders should also evaluate which employees have the “desire to do more” and tend to “go the extra mile” by tracking their participation in professional development activities. For example, Bowness suggests looking at which employees are taking on stretch assignments and/or additional projects and trying to “expand their exposure” or impact on projects in new, innovative ways.

While emerging technologies can help identify high-performing employees, they can also identify skills gaps and help L&D professionals address them through targeted learning initiatives. If these initiatives are not in the budget, Christensen suggests partnering with stakeholders in the functional teams where the skills gaps exist. Then, they can work together to create a development plan aligned with their goals and to gain executive sponsorship.

Learning leaders can also “tap into the knowledge” of existing employees by engaging them as mentors and/or subject matter experts (SMEs) to help bridge skills gaps across the organization, Christensen says. “These opportunities provide growth and development to those participants as well.”

Don’t Lose Touch

From tracking employee performance and recommending successors to identifying skills gaps, technology plays a growing role in succession planning. However, human connection should remain part of the process. After all, succession planning is “both an art and a science,” says Shawnice Meador, head of diversity and inclusion (D&I) at tech company ABB. When learning leaders have ample “data at their fingertips,” it’s easy to start making decisions purely based on the numbers. But having “deep conversations” with employees is critical in remaining supportive of their career goals and being transparent about their progress.

Aaron Laznovsky, senior principal product manager at HCM software company SumTotal, echoes the importance of open and honest career conversations between managers and employees. These conversations give employees “insight and input” into their careers and demonstrate the organization’s commitment to development — which, he adds, can improve retention.

SumTotal’s succession planning solution, which Laznovsky describes as a comprehensive “tool kit,” features assessments that allow for employee input. “We want to make sure that [employees] feel invested in the organization — that they have insight into their careers, their goals [and] where they’re going to be in five years.”

Done well, succession planning helps learning leaders determine employees’ top skills and competencies, identify skills gaps, and determine potential successors for roles across the organization. By helping employees grow beyond the roles they’re in today, succession planning and career conversations can also be a “really impactful” way to drive a positive employee experience, Bowness says.

In fact, a positive employee experience may be one of the most impactful benefits of succession planning. After all, employees who feel their organization is investing in the professional development, and who feel valued and supported along their career path, are more likely to stay for the long haul.