Succession planning

Certain individuals are so crucial to an organisation that it can feel as though the whole team would collapse without them – and hiring for a replacement is never easy. Enter succession planning: succession planning is about identifying and growing talent to fill leadership and business-critical positions if a current post holder leaves the service.


Within wider resourcing, talent and development processes, succession planning is a key component of workforce planning, which ensures that the right number of people with the right skills are employed in the right roles at the right time to deliver the service’s objectives.


Having a skilled, motivated, well-supported and developed workforce is crucial to achieving your service’s goals. So it is essential that individuals can access the right opportunities, exposure, stretch and development to reach their potential, whether in their current or future roles. And this is where robust succession planning comes in.



  • Employee retention (especially top performers)
  • Better business and individual performance
  • Long-term stability for the service
  • Identifies and develops the next generation of leaders
  • Minimises potential gaps in the workforce
  • Ensures continuity in staffing
  • Prevents premature promotions, through early development interventions
  • Improves diversity in the workforce
  • Motivates existing employees
  • Engages employees
  • Reduces costs
  • Recognises and develops a range of talents


What to think about

The first and perhaps most important consideration is communication. It is essential to bring your wider workforce with you on your succession planning journey: explain why you need to do this, how they might help and why traditional recruitment approaches may not be appropriate for a particular role or activity.



It’s best to keep people as informed as possible, but it might not always be appropriate to share certain information. It can be useful to share some examples of why not: for instance, a postholder might be planning for retirement, have disclosed ill health or have opened up about their plans to leave the service. By the same token, it’s worth explaining the benefits of sharing information to the current post holder and encouraging them to be open if they can, but it must still be a personal decision.



Any measures, assessments or procedures must be objective and never designed to give anyone a ‘leg up’ the ladder. Not only would this be unfair, but team members who are denied an opportunity to be considered could easily challenge this. It would also leave the organisation open to accusations of nepotism and discrimination.


Some more things to consider are included on the following pages.


Internal secondment


When using secondments as part of your succession planning approach, make sure the selection process is objective, open and appropriate for the role.


Secondments can be an effective developmental tool. When used in this way, make sure the recruitment information outlines a clear path towards gaining the desired competence and that it identifies entry criteria and timescales for achieving each stage or development area.


If you are thinking about creating a temporary role to boost service resilience and expertise within a team or area, it is important to consider not only how to fund the secondment but also any permission(s) required, the duration of the secondment and how you’ll measure its success.


What do you need the prospective post holder to do while in the role? And how will you know whether the requirements have been met appropriately, fully and in a timely manner? Any secondment that is part of a succession planning strategy should consider these questions and many more:

·         Are colleagues willing/able to transfer their knowledge?

·         What will the project be? Does the timeline match the secondment duration?

·         What does the secondee wish to gain from the opportunity? Are their requirements reasonable and achievable?

·         What outcomes does the service require? How will success be measured? What outcomes are you seeking?

·         What career development opportunities are next? Can you keep developing the secondee’s skills/knowledge when it ends?

Developing deputies*


Developing deputies is a relatively straightforward talent pipeline. You’ll need to consider carefully the performance data and other objective measures you’ll use to identify your pipeline and who will be developed.


Be cautious when deciding how to select candidates: those who don’t match your criteria may feel unmotivated if they are keen to progress but lack the capacity at that point in time. Make sure that people who aren’t selected understand why and what they can do for future opportunities. You might want to build this into your appraisal/performance management measures.


You could also put in place a small-scale developmental programme for those who are not successful; this will help overcome any negativity and show an ongoing investment in the whole team, not just the ‘rising stars’.


When considering developing deputies, define exactly what you mean by ‘deputy’. Sometimes the deputy is obvious: for example, the organisation structure might indicate the key role’s natural subordinates or aligned roles that can be developed. In this case, defining deputies is relatively straightforward. Where things are more complicated, look at the wider organisation and identify other roles that require similar or aligned skills and/or knowledge.


For this approach, it is not only essential to act fairly but to demonstrate that you are acting fairly. Explain why you are taking this approach and the impact not doing so would have on the wider workforce.


* Here, we take deputies to be people within the team/wider service who are one level below the role you are focusing on. Deputies have sufficient skill and knowledge overlap with the key role for it to be a next logical career step.




Any move to integrate apprenticeships into a wider succession planning approach must be considered carefully. Enabling people to gain qualifications alongside on-the-job learning is a great way to develop your succession planning agenda, but it is not without issues.


Perhaps the single most challenging aspect of any apprenticeship programme is ensuring the apprentice has time outside their ‘day job’ to learn, reflect and meet the requirements of the programme as a whole. Remember that this is development time, rather than simply off-the-job learning time or a drain. Managers should look to allocate and identify any opportunities to build this time into the working week to help apprentices achieve their 20% development time.

An apprenticeship may be much more financially advantageous (*if levy funded), but time requirements over and above a traditional standalone qualification can add indirect costs. This can’t be definitively measured, but you should consider whether the indirect costs outweigh any ‘cash’ advantages. If they do, think about how you might fund a standalone qualification to provide access to the key role in future.


*The levy is designed to fund apprenticeship training for all employers. The objective of the levy is to give employers more control over where, and how, money is spent on apprenticeships.


Capture expertise


Capturing expertise is first about identifying the specific knowledge and/or skill that is so scarce that it cannot be readily replaced should the current post holder opt to leave the service.


Second, it is about recording the process, knowledge and system itself and preparing a clear set of instructions or guides for anyone coming into the role. While this can’t replicate local knowledge, capturing how to do specific elements of the job in a comprehensive and accessible way will help any new person get up to speed much more quickly.


The final step is piloting. Carry out a ‘dry run’ for the activity or task with someone who lacks the relevant expertise and/or experience. Asking people with zero experience of the task to follow the ‘how to’ guide helps identify any gaps and/or assumptions made.


When making a how-to guide, people who are experienced or knowledgeable often miss out key steps or make assumptions. Think, for example, about how hyper-aware you were when you did a certain task for the first time – like driving or writing – that you now do without really thinking about. When writing down how to do a particular task, more experienced colleagues will often leave steps out because they no longer consciously think about them. This is why the piloting stage is so helpful.


Another way to capture key knowledge or expertise is through a show-tell-do approach. This is as simple as it sounds. The experienced team member shows a colleague how to do the activity, then walks the inexperienced colleague through the task while also talking them through it. Finally, the inexperienced colleague carries out the task with minimal support before being able to repeat the task without close supervision. This approach works best when the experienced colleague is a willing mentor or ‘buddy’ for the inexperienced colleague.


Career path


The career path option is one to consider when you have a deputy role or could develop one. It aims to futureproof the service by enabling someone to take up certain elements of the business-critical role while gaining the required skills for the post. For example, if a post requires a specific qualification, someone could take up the post without the qualification but work towards it to achieve the top grade within the salary band.


In this approach, the progression from the bottom to the top of the salary band is based on the achievement of key outcomes. This typically includes qualifications and/or a level of task-proficiency that can be objectively measured. For this process to be a success, the personnel specification needs to be divided into ‘day one’ requirements and those that are required after a given time period, for example two years. This approach also supports the use of apprenticeships as the post holder may become eligible for ‘competent pay’ (i.e. the higher salary points within the grade) after achieving the apprentice standard and its qualifications.


Objectivity is key here. One valid approach could be to ask the individual to present evidence of their development to a panel or senior manager.


External secondment


It is tempting to want to hold on to talent within your own service. However, real loyalty comes when employees feel invested in. This option may include ‘boomerang’ opportunities: when someone leaves the service to gain new insights, skills, experiences and knowledge before coming back to a different role in the future. This is fundamentally about personal growth and the value the newly acquired/developed skills can bring to the organisation.


To ensure external secondments succeed, prioritise keeping in touch time. Don’t let the employee drift from your service or they may become loyal to their seconded organisation and not come back! That would be a false investment. Checking in regularly and occasional catch-up calls are so important; maintaining and strengthening ties with the individual will add significant value.


Do nothing


As with any set of options, there is always the option to do nothing. Consider this carefully, and use planning and modelling to determine whether this is an appropriate way forward. It is unlikely that doing nothing will support employee loyalty or develop people in other roles.


If you need to fill a key role now but are unlikely to replace it, consider any tasks/responsibilities that will continue and how you can ensure this need will be met.



Other solutions and options

This document outlines a number of things to consider when choosing your talent solution, but you may come across others in future, and these should be included in your plan. Any solution must be appropriate, fair and also ‘feel fair’ to employees; there is little appetite among the fire and rescue workforce for giving people a ‘leg up’ without merit. So tread carefully, but do think creatively and widely about other potential solutions to impending talent gaps.



When thinking about effective succession planning, consider the wide range of approaches you could take carefully. Any option you deliver should take into account the need for objectivity. You may have evidence to suggest that an individual could perform well in a development role, but you cannot simply tap someone on the shoulder and give them an opportunity. After all, decision-makers within an organisation – particularly a large and complex one – only see a proportion of the workforce ‘in action’; you only know those you see, and they are much more likely to be people ‘like you’.


Not casting the net across the service is unlikely to impact organisational culture positively or increase diversity. Instead, setting up the expectation that people must apply for roles will ensure that everyone is given access to opportunities. And those who are successful in gaining access to succession planning-focused initiatives will have the credibility and confidence that come with the knowledge that the role was awarded on merit.