By Anne Whiting, Senior Consultant

The continuing and unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on the workplace puts companies’ leadership and HR practices in the spotlight, especially successes (and failures) in succession planning. An alarming number of businesses are falling short – and the sense of urgency for getting succession right during the pandemic is growing.

Covid-19 is touching everything in the organization, putting HR practitioners under enormous pressure to successfully juggle and address current needs and challenges, all while continuing to plan for the future in an environment of great uncertainty. Some of the difficult questions that practitioners must consider include: how to get some employees back to work safely while supporting others working effectively remotely, what kind of coaching or ongoing support is needed for leaders at all levels during the pandemic, and how to create successful 2021 strategies and budgets with so many unknowns. This rollercoaster juggling act is wending its way into talent management – where succession planning, always a challenging effort, has become even more complex and stressful.

One emerging trend we have seen is that HR leaders are now combining longer-term succession planning with short-term replacement planning. This scenario planning is typical for the top-of-house roles in the organization, but Covid-19 is creating a need to plan for a broader range of roles. Questions arise on how to best address the potential domino effect of someone being out long-term or even how to replace someone who dies from the virus. To be sure, this is a morbid, and deeply upsetting, thought for any management team to consider, but it is the responsible strategy leaders must take to ensure business continuity.

Planning for Successors or Replacements?

Distinguishing between replacement planning and succession planning is important. Succession planning is an organization’s proactive plan of action to ensure continuity of business operations by cultivating talent from within the organization through planned development activities. The objective of replacement planning is to limit the risk stemming from the immediate and unplanned loss of key job incumbents. As organizations revisit their succession and replacement planning efforts, there are several key factors to keep in mind.

Replacement planning begins with identifying the key positions throughout your organization. There is probably one position that is the linchpin for a department or team; it is important to consider both individual contributor roles in conjunction with leadership positions. The goal is to identify the top 5-10% of the positions your organization that cannot function without. The next step is to identify the critical threshold skills that are required to perform each key position and identify 1-3 current (or former) employees that could backfill the position and identify where the organization is vulnerable because no replacements exist. Tapping into talent data such as performance reviews, team engagement scores, 360 Feedback, and 9-box grids can help assess leadership skills.

Performance versus Potential

For longer-term succession planning, identifying high potential employees is a central task. I often hear HR leaders express disappointment in their HiPo identification process. It typically stems from a lack of understanding of the potential. In many instances, there is not a common definition that is deeply understood by both HR and leadership. This disconnect renders significant problems when it comes to identifying HiPos. High performers stand out from average performers in any organization. They consistently exceed expectations and are management’s go-to people for difficult projects because they have a track record of getting the job done. They are great at their job and take pride in their accomplishments but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role or to take on more advanced work. HiPos can be difficult to identify for two reasons. First, high performance is easy to observe and it can drown out the less obvious attributes and behaviors that characterize high potential–like change management or learning capabilities. Second, not all organizations codify the attributes and competencies they value in their leaders–which means that managers do not know precisely what to look for to assess potential. As a result, most managers focus exclusively on performance – and that can be a problem.


When discussing succession planning, we must consider the diversity of leadership. Most companies are striving for diversity in leadership, but many feel trapped by their own talent pools. An organization may genuinely want to add a woman to their C-Suite, but how can they do that when all their highly-developed candidates are men? It is important to understand that this conundrum is not happenstance; there are a host of biases that impact who is (or is not) viewed as having potential. Before a company can achieve a diverse leadership team, it must overcome the blind spots that are making their HiPo nominations so homogenous. Educating leaders on common sources of bias is an easy first step.

Ensuring the leadership pipeline includes a varied group of supervisors and first-level managers is key to having a diverse and inclusive set at the top of the human capital stack. If there is a lack of diversity at the starting line, it limits who can progress through the organization’s leadership ranks. To be inclusive, HR leaders and organizations must be willing to broaden traditional views of leadership and engage with employees and leaders from diverse groups who are effective and have different leadership styles instead of looking at their individual, and perhaps narrow, definition of a traditional leader.

One View Is Not Enough

Seeking data from several sources rather than relying on any one person’s view can help fight bias in identifying HiPos. People who call attention to themselves are most likely to get noticed. As a result, when HiPo nominations are primarily based on intuitive personal judgments, HiPo talent pools will be stacked with charismatic hard chargers.

Persons designated as HiPos may or may not have leadership potential, but they almost always have effective impression management skills, which results in high ratings from their bosses, and in turn, advancement opportunities.

Managers usually know who they like, but they may not always know who is doing a good job. This is where leadership assessment data, such as 360 Feedback, can play a role because it includes behavioral based observations from managers, peers, direct reports, and others and can be valid predictor of leadership effectiveness. Additionally, organizations may incorporate personality measures that correlate with leadership success, such as conscientiousness (dependability, achievement, striving, planfulness) and emotional stability (lack of anxiety, hostility, personal insecurity).

Today’s HR leader continues to wear more hats than ever before and he or she is on the front lines in scenario planning for the major sea changes ahead. Navigating these choppy waters demands that leadership and HR get on the same page as they work together to insure a successful future. Your managers play a bigger role in building a pipeline of thriving talent than they may realize, and it is increasingly important that we empower them to do this successfully.

If you’re interested in learning more about succession planning, reach out to us or check out our series on CEO succession: https://3dgroup.net/succeeding-at-ceo-succession/

Anne Whiting, MA is a Senior Consultant at 3D Group. She has over two decades of experience as a global HR leader and coach. Her direct industry experience includes consumer packaged goods, aerospace manufacturing, professional services, information technology, and healthcare. Anne earned her Master of Science degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from Alliant International University in San Diego. 

This article was originally published on HR.com.