Succession Planning

A Strengths-Based Approach Focusing on Internal Candidates

Mel Hensey, a Management Consultant in Engineering, states, “Of the organizations we work with, 90% are chronically short of leaders” (Hensey, 1997, p. 8). Twenty years later, this problem is as prevalent as ever. Organizations frequently turn to external hires to fill these empty high-level positions, often to little avail. In addition to costing an average of $3 million more than internal candidates per hire, external executives are significantly less likely to be effective leaders (Chandler, Hall, & Kram, 2010). This shortage of organizational leaders and high cost of external executive hires calls for a modern, low-cost solution to developing leaders ready to take on future business challenges. Such a solution can be found by taking a strengths-based approach to succession planning with a focus on internal candidates. 

Hensey (1997) states, “While [executive succession planning] is a well-intended effort, it is often destructive in the way it is done” (p. 8). Traditionally, organizations engage in succession planning by spotting current and future deficits within the executive team and seeking individuals, often externally, to fill those deficits. Positive Psychology is a domain that fundamentally challenges the deficit approach, encouraging us to capitalize on what is going right rather than what is going wrong. Through this alternative lens, we can shift our focus to employees’ strengths rather than weaknesses, and utilize the knowledge and development of those strengths to groom future leaders for executive roles.

A strength is a natural capacity for behaving, thinking or feeling in a way that allows optimal functioning and performance in the pursuit of valued outcomes” (Linley and Harrington 2006, p. 86). In other words, when working in an area of natural strength, an employee has the capacity to perform at his own highest level and produce the greatest benefits for himself and the organization.

Understanding and developing employee strengths can help organizations promote the candidates that are most likely to be successful. For example, in many cases the best worker is promoted to manager, without considering whether that individual’s strengths align with a management position. However, someone who is excellent at engineering will not necessarily excel at managing people; an individual who has strong relational skills and excellent communication abilities would be a better fit.

The strengths-based approach can be taken a step further by looking for ways that employees can continue to develop their strengths for higher-level positions down the road. Hodges and Clifton (2004) provide three steps to strengths-based development:

1) Identification of talent: increasing self-awareness of peoples’ strengths and talents

2) Integration into self-concept: noticing how their behaviors are shaped by their strengths, and defining who they are in terms of their strengths

3) Behavioral change: using strengths intentionally, and tying successes back to these talent themes

Keeping these steps in mind can help organizations effectively utilize strengths-based development for constructive succession planning. Every organization has their own way of succession planning; 9-box grids, simple tables, or high-tech software technologies. No matter the type of succession planning at your organization, strengths-based succession could be implemented.

Identifying Strengths

Before developing a strengths-based succession plan, you should begin by working with your employees to identify their strengths. For a charge, Gallup offers the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment, which measures individual’s strengths using a 177 items scale. The tool provides you with a list of 34 strengths in order from highest to lowest (such as futuristic, love of learning, achiever, responsibility, etc.). This assessment is recommended because it is based on large bodies of research within a workplace setting, and provides explanations and suggestions of how to use each strength. If you’re tight on expenses, you could instead use the Values in Action assessment created by Positive Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. This assessment is less studied within the workplace domain, but provides a free alternative to the Gallup StrengthsFinder. Most importantly, strengths assessments are useful tools for sparking conversations about strengths and encouraging employees to find the overlap between what they enjoy and what they do best.

Succession Planning

Once employees and their managers are aware of where their strengths lie, they can be incorporated into a new succession planning process. A sample table succession plan is shown below. This plan can be used to help an organization determine whether a current employee would make an effective Quality Assurance Manager down the road. In addition to looking at the employee’s current position and previous performance, this tool asks you to note the employee’s strengths, and assess whether or not these strengths indicate that the individual could be well-suited to a management position in the future. Keep in mind that the individual may have substantial room to develop these strengths further, and may need to do so prior to a promotion.

By introducing strengths into the succession plan, leaders can have a conversation focused on positive traits that relate to the role. For example, John Smeizer is a Quality Assurance Assistant and has been with the company for 2 years. John has above average performance and his managers and co-workers enjoy working with him. Now that leadership is aware of his strengths, they have a better picture of what kind of manager John could be. John is strong in the relational domain - something extremely important for the QA Manager role in their company. His strengths are already well-developed and his performance has been excellent, so John is deemed ready for a management level position today. This information will be useful the next time the job opens up, and could help the organization avoid a long and costly recruitment process. On the other hand, if John were to have shown the capacity for strengths in the relational domain, but still had significant room for growth, leadership could have taken action in developing those strengths for him to be ready in 4-5 years. Using strengths, in addition to 360-degree feedback from others, helps leadership better identify John as a future Manager.  This process could be used for all positions, including the Regional Quality Officer (Executive level position).

Using a strengths-based succession plan can help organizations that are chronically short of leaders. Strengths tap into employees’ positive individual traits, which can have positive dividends for organizations. Creating a strengths-focused component to succession planning can help organizations find the right internal candidates to fill leadership roles, with the potential to save the company millions of dollars and lead to more successful hires down the road.


Chandler, D. E., Hall, D. T., & Kram, K. E. (2010). A developmental network & relational savvy approach to talent development: A low cost alternative. Organizational Dynamics, 39, 48-56. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2009.10.001.

Hensey, M. (1997). Bench strength development. Journal of Management in Engineering, 13, 3.

Hodges, T. D., & Clifton, D. O. (2004). Strengths-based development in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.), Positive psychology in practice (256-268). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Linley, A. & Harrington, S. (2006). Playing to your strengths. The Psychologist, 19(2). 86-89.

Seligman, M. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5 - 14.