Identifying Top Performers for Succession and Workforce Planning

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By Dr. John Sullivan

In order to do succession planning, you must first identify the “future leaders” of your organization who will be included in your succession plan. Once identified, those leaders can then be targeted for development and, eventually, a planned progression throughout the organization.

But what is the best approach to use to identify the individuals you should put into a succession plan? There are a variety of approaches you can use, including:

  1. Current performance.
    Use current performance as an indicator of future performance.
  2. Surveys and interviews.
    Ask people who might be a future leader, or who would like to be a future leader.
  3. Competency assessment.
    Identify those who have the competencies or skills of leaders through assessment programs.
  4. Leadership behaviors.
    Look at on-the-job leadership behaviors or actions.

Let’s take a closer look at each of the four approaches for identifying succession plan participants.

Identifying Succession Plan Participants Using Current Performance
In all my years of experience, I have found identifying an individual’s “potential” to be an impossible task. I have seen people who were quiet and reserved come forward in times of crisis and perform exceptionally well as leaders. Some of these people continued on as leaders, while others returned to their more passive roles. Almost invariably, no one saw this “quiet person’s” potential in advance.

In direct contrast, whether in sports or business, many individuals who were identified early as “high potential” individuals fail to perform and develop into leaders. There is little argument that there is a high failure rate in identifying potentials, and also in failing to identify individuals who later became excellent leaders.

To avoid the high potential pitfall, I recommend you use performance (rather than the “potential” for performance) as your primary assessment criteria. Below are some approaches for identifying future leaders based on their current performance.

  • Top performers.
    The first step is to identify top performers in all job categories. This can be done by merely comparing their job output, by forced ranking, or by utilizing the more traditional performance appraisal scores. Whatever you do, it is important to cover your bases by utilizing multiple measures.
  • Problem solvers.
    Great baseball players don’t always turn out to be great managers. But those players that demonstrate that they can solve a variety of complex problems are the ones with the highest probability of success at management. You can identify individuals who can solve complex problems by reviewing how they handle problems in their current job or by providing them with opportunities to solve “new” problems that have no clear process or solution. In addition, also identify whom other employees, team leaders and managers request when they face a complex problem.
  • Fast learners.
    Because those in senior management positions must constantly deal with uncertainty and the unknown, it’s important to identify individuals who learn rapidly in their current job. Typically these individuals read more and different things in order to learn. They frequently scan leading-edge business, functional, and industry publications and websites. Use their current performance appraisal to identify those who learn rapidly. Other options include assigning them problems that require fast learning or just asking around to identify, who is a fast learner.
  • Stretch assignments.
    By assigning individuals to task forces, teams, and “stretch” short-term assignments, you can gather hard evidence about the performance and leadership capabilities of your employees. I recommend that you give a wide variety of employees these opportunities in order to identify “sleepers” (leaders who have not yet come forward). This approach is widely utilized at GE, where stretch goals and stretch assignments are a primary method for identifying, developing, and assessing leaders.

Identifying Succession Plan Participants Through Surveys
Often times, success and performance are a result of a team effort. But a team effort makes it much more difficult to identify individuals who are top performers. One way around that problem is to survey many individuals in order to get multiple opinions about who is a leader. Some of the possible approaches include:

  • 360-degree assessments.
    Use a 360-degree assessment tool to anonymously ask a wide variety of individuals who has potential, who is a leader, and who is a top performer. By asking managers and non-managers alike, you increase the odds of identifying any sleeper leaders or true leaders. Receiving positive feedback about one’s leadership skills from both managers and non-managers can be enlightening, and it is certainly a “win” for both the employee and the organization.
  • Interest inventory.
    One of the biggest errors in succession planning is missing a future leader. One way to minimize the chance of missing possible leaders is to ask everyone to nominate or identify themselves as potential leaders. Obviously some “non-leaders” will misidentify themselves as leaders, but this approach, at the very least, minimizes the frustration of those employees that may have felt slighted because they were never selected by other leadership identification programs. By providing these self-selected individuals with stretch assignments, you not only give them a chance to prove themselves, but you also provide them and management with hard-to-refute evidence in the event that they should fail.
  • Ask other developing leaders.
    Ask other leaders that have begun to develop who else is good.
  • Ask mentors.
    Identify the “mentees” of senior leaders, based on the premise that they wouldn’t be aiding or mentoring someone unless they saw a great deal of potential in them.
  • Ask employees.
    Interview employees directly and ask them who they see as leaders. Don’t be fooled by someone’s pay or title. Some manager’s focus on seniority and relationships rather than performance. Someone at the firm always knows who the top performers are — but those in the know might not include top management!

Identifying Succession Plan Participants Using Competencies
Some organizations have used competencies or competency modeling to identify the skills or traits of potential leaders and then labeled individuals with those skills and competencies as leaders. I’m skeptical of that approach, as is author Robert Kelley, who after years of intensive productivity research at Bell Labs and 3M reveals in his book, “How to Be a Star at Work,” that he could find “no common traits” among star workers.

Identifying common competencies among potential leaders is a very complex, time consuming, and expensive approach, for a variety of reasons. The most difficult problem to overcome is the definition and measurement of competencies. Most companies identify similar competencies like business acumen, innovation, and leadership. But precisely defining what these competencies are and accurately measuring them can become a nightmare. Although I don’t recommend the competency approach, some of the commonly used methods to identify competencies include:

  • Assessment centers. A combination of tests, simulations, or role plays identify the skills and behaviors individuals use to solve complex problems.
  • Competency modeling. This is a process of comparing and contrasting the skills, knowledge, and competencies of successful leaders (vs. unsuccessful leaders) in a corporation. Some firms have come up with a list of leadership competencies, but one of the difficulties is that the skills and behavior required to succeed within the company in the past might not be the same ones necessary to succeed in the present or the future.

Identifying Succession Plan Participants Using Behavior or Actions
Some firms look at more measurable behaviors or actions that are used in their current job instead of looking at an individual’s competencies or skills. The premise here is that you can identify leaders through their work behaviors. Some of the behaviors that succession plan managers have used to identify the individuals that will populate their succession plan include:

  • They have mentored others.
  • They are requested by other managers and employees to work on teams or to help solve problems.
  • They generally have spoken at conferences and internal company events.
  • They are early adapters of new tools, technology, and ideas.
  • “A” players are curious and therefore frequently ask questions during presentations.
  • They have written articles or are cited by others in their articles.
  • They often use technology to do everything faster, cheaper, and better.
  • They have developed new or innovative processes, systems, and approaches.
  • They use metrics to quantify the success of processes, products, and services they helped to develop.
  • They know the top problems and opportunities facing your industry and firm, as well as the steps you should take to solve at least one of these critical problems.

Common “Non-Leader” Behaviors
Individuals who are unlikely to become leaders also exhibit certain behaviors. These often include:

  • They demand job security and guaranteed pay.
  • They express a strong need for clear “rules,” defined expectations and stable job responsibilities.
  • They talk about and put an overemphasis on process, the chain of command, and policies.
  • They give indications that they are uncomfortable with ambiguity and fast change.
  • They are strong advocates of seniority and are opposed to pay for performance.

Succession plans cannot work if they include too many non-leaders and exclude too many individuals with leadership potential. As a result, the selection process for identifying who should be targeted for development assignments should be as precise as possible. In case of doubt, I recommend you initially put too many on the plan and later cut them out based on their performance.

I further recommend you focus on current performance and behaviors rather than potential when you develop your selection criteria. Be careful of competencies, if for no other reason than that they are time consuming. My final advice is to use multiple criteria and to ask numerous people. Leaving out someone that many believe to be a leader can lead to frustration, disharmony, and charges of discrimination and favoritism. In case of doubt, give as many people as possible a chance to succeed or fail as leaders.


Dr. John Sullivan is a well-known thought leader in HR. He is a frequent speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley firms. Formerly the chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies (the 43,000-employee HP spin-off), he is now a professor of management at San Francisco State University. He was called the “Michael Jordan of Hiring” by Fast Company magazine. More recruiting articles by Dr. Sullivan can be found in the ER Daily archives. Information about his numerous other articles, books and manuals about recruiting and HR can be found online. You may find other articles by him at

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