• Stephanie Reh

Internal Leadership Development Programs Build Hiring Pipeline for Succession Plans


Organizational sustainability is strengthened considerably when a robust succession planning process is in place. This includes a commitment to individual development planning. Preparing successors can be accelerated by offering internal leadership development programs tailored to your culture and specific needs.


Succession Planning Process


I recommend a two-step succession planning process, which is applicable to any type of organization. First, develop succession plans at least for the organization’s leadership team and ideally, for all supervisory and key individual contributor positions. Individual contributor positions are considered “key” if they require a rare, specific skillset and/or a vacancy would be significantly disruptive to the organization.


I hosted a webinar on this topic, which includes downloadable resources you can access here. The Succession Planning Worksheet walks through the process of identifying an emergency successor – someone who can step in and adequately cover the role while the recruiting process is conducted – and potential long-term successors.


The second step is to complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP) for named successors and I STRONGLY recommend having IDPs for all employees. As a leader, I suggest you complete IDPs in the following priority order: your own IDP, anyone on your succession plan, and everyone else on your team.


A thoughtful IDP, diligently executed, is the primary vehicle for preparing a named successor and for giving opportunities to other employees to become named successors.

To hold yourself accountable as an organization for following through on your commitment to support the development of all employees, I highly recommend 1.) announcing and reinforcing the requirement for all employees to have an IDP and 2.) assigning primary responsibility for completion to the employee rather than the supervisor.


In addition to the IDP, the most effective method I have found for identifying successors and accelerating their readiness is to offer internal leadership programs.

Emerging Leaders Program


Especially if you are struggling to fill supervisory vacancies internally, I recommend developing an Emerging Leaders Program (ELP). This is geared toward would-be supervisors and anyone else who demonstrates the potential to be a strong leader. In a human services organization, the ELP can prepare direct support professionals and support staff for positions of increased responsibility and give them more visibility among your Leadership Team so they are top-of-mind when positions become available.

An open application process works well with ELP. Require a brief, written statement from the employee and an endorsement from the supervisor, confirming their suitability for the program and the supervisor’s support of the work that will be required during the program. Then, the Leadership Team can come together to review all endorsed applications and make selections. Selections should be based on candidates’ demonstrated performance in the current role and potential for leadership growth. Length of service should not be a primary factor except with very recent hires who do not have enough time to establish themselves and therefore, are not legitimate candidates because they do not yet have a track record. The reason I do not endorse a specific length of service requirement is because high potential new hires may be discouraged if they have to wait an entire year or more to be considered for the program. Once individual candidate applications are evaluated, choose a final group that is diverse in terms of background and organizational function/location.


It is important to note that ELP does not focus on supervisory instruction, such as how to recruit and hire new staff or how to conduct performance reviews. The purpose of ELP is to develop leaders, not to communicate procedures. The latter should be shared with all supervisors, regardless of whether they are participating in a leadership development program.


A well-designed, promoted, and executed ELP will likely result in several participants being promoted or transferred to a new/better role either during or after the program. These results can be attributed to the strength of the program curriculum as well as the increased visibility the program affords. When a position becomes available, your Leadership Team should ask, “Who is in ELP?” The ELP then becomes the first place you look for qualified candidates.


Ascending Leaders Program


While the Emerging Leaders Program may effectively meet the needs of inexperienced leaders, it is not likely suitable for more established leaders at higher levels of the organization. To develop middle and upper management, I recommend offering an Ascending Leaders Program (ALP) for experienced leaders who are successor candidates for higher level positions.


Since your focus is on named successors, an open application process would not be advised. Instead, transparent conversations with successors should yield obvious candidates for the ALP.


A key difference between ELP and ALP is the workload. I make ELP intentionally challenging and ALP intentionally not. This is because new leaders need to learn how to maintain strong performance on their primary job while contributing with excellence to the important work of ELP. The time management acumen built along the way is extremely valuable.


ALP participants, by nature of their elevated leadership role, are already juggling multiple responsibilities and they already have ample opportunities to participate in cross-functional teamwork. In acknowledgment of that, there is no group project because the focus is more on the leader doing soul-searching with support from the facilitator and other participants. This intense reflection works best in a smaller cohort. They receive 360-degree feedback and direct feedback from Leadership Team members, which they incorporate into the IDP they each present to the Leadership Team at the end of the program.


The chart below outlines the example structure I recommend for ELP and ALP:


I’d like to expand a bit on some of the items above:

  • In my experience, participants really enjoy the 1:1 coaching in ELP, which means you need to have a cadre of coaches. The best coaches are typically ALP alumni, which extends their learning and development and creates a virtuous cycle of growth within the organization.

  • For both programs, it’s best to run one cohort at a time. These programs require time and effort from many stakeholders and having more than one cohort could be too burdensome and dilute your focus. You can hold ALP and ELP at the same time with one cohort each, or hold one program at a time. Generally, I think it’s best to have one ELP and one ALP cohort each year, so the program administrators don’t burn out, and so the participants can claim their own year. ELP Class of 2020, for example.

  • Inclusion of an external professional development tool strengthens and complements the internally-developed curriculum. I have used and recommend Matrix Insights.

  • Active participation in one of your established, cross-functional committees is a great way for emerging leaders to learn more about how your organization’s functions work together.

  • An important anchor of the ELP is the signature group project. Don’t waste this opportunity to get actual work done – choose a real project with real work that will really benefit your organization. Past projects I have assigned include writing a group of new policies, conducting an organizational HIPAA risk assessment, and creating a library of client testimonial videos. All of these examples require participants to interact with many different stakeholders and to work together as a team to plan and complete multi-step projects. I like to include an interim milestone where the cohort presents their draft plan to me for feedback, so I can make sure they are on the right track before they move to execution.

  • At the close of each program, celebrate! Gather the group together, feed them something yummy, and present each participant with their completion certificate and a gift featuring your organization’s logo. This is also a great time to solicit honest feedback.

Keeping it fresh Each year, review and adjust the curriculum according to trends, what’s going on in your organization, or new ideas you gain from soliciting feedback from program participants. For ELP, I ask graduates to recommend at least one person for the next cohort. Having been through the program, they now understand the “hidden” learning intentions: interpersonal group dynamics, time management, receiving and responding to constructive feedback, etc. Armed with this knowledge, they thoughtfully suggest new participants.


Don’t miss the opportunity to toot your horn to your board of directors. They will be very interested in the progress indicated by your Leadership Succession Planning chart, as well as the targeted efforts you are making to ensure those successors will be ready. Having representatives from ELP and ALP periodically share their experiences with the board directly is a very effective way of demonstrating the impact of the leadership development programs.


Responsible succession planning includes deliberate effort to develop employees for critical roles. As the agency grows and changes, new leadership development approaches will be necessary. The total cost for such programs can be very reasonable, and the return on investment is significant. Continuous pursuit of learning and improvement at both the employee and organizational level will be critical to sustaining the health of your organization and your ongoing success in serving your clients with excellence.


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