Leading with Agility:

Strategies for Skill-Based Succession Planning

Leading with Agility:

Introduction: Embracing the Future of Succession Planning

In an era where rapid technological advancements and shifting workforce dynamics continually redefine the landscape of work, the strategic importance of effective succession planning has never been more critical. Yet, traditional approaches to succession planning, often rigid and hierarchical, increasingly fall short of meeting the needs of modern organizations and their employees. I’ve written this guide with one goal in mind: to illuminate the path toward a more dynamic, skill-based model of succession planning that aligns with the evolving demands of the business world and the aspirations of its workforce.

The transition to skill-based succession planning marks a significant departure from conventional strategies. It is not just a change in procedure but a profound shift in perspective, recognizing that the key to future success lies not in titles or tenure but in the abilities and aptitudes that individuals bring to their roles. As organizations grapple with rapid market changes, technological innovation, and a diversifying range of job functions, the imperative to adapt and respond with agility becomes paramount. This guide aims to make a compelling case for why moving towards a skill-based model is not just advantageous but essential for organizations seeking to thrive in this dynamic environment.

The Current Succession Planning Landscape

Succession planning, at its core, is a strategy for identifying and developing future leaders at all levels of an organization, ensuring a seamless transition in key positions to safeguard the continuity of business operations and the realization of strategic goals. Traditional succession planning models have typically focused on identifying successors based on seniority, tenure, or position within a hierarchical structure. While this approach may have been sufficient in more stable times, it is increasingly inadequate in today’s fast-paced and fluid business environment.

The limitations of traditional succession planning are becoming more apparent. It often overlooks the rich tapestry of skills and potential within an organization, concentrating instead on a narrow set of criteria that may not align with future needs. Such an approach can stifle innovation, hinder agility, and overlook talent that could bring fresh perspectives and capabilities essential for navigating the challenges of the modern world.

The emergence of skill-based succession planning offers a promising alternative. By focusing on the specific skills and competencies that are critical for the success of an organization, this approach ensures that talent development efforts are aligned with strategic business objectives. It encourages a more inclusive and flexible view of potential leaders, considering a wider range of candidates and fostering a culture of continuous learning and development.

Moreover, skill-based succession planning recognizes that the future is unpredictable and that the skills needed tomorrow may not be the ones that are valued today. It prepares organizations to adapt by cultivating a workforce that is resilient, versatile, and capable of stepping into various roles as needed. This chapter sets the stage for a deeper exploration of skill-based succession planning, offering insights into its significance and how it can revolutionize talent development strategies to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The Pillars of Skill-Based Succession Planning

Skill-based succession planning rests on several foundational pillars that distinguish it from traditional approaches and ensure its effectiveness in fostering a forward-looking and adaptable workforce. Understanding these pillars is crucial for HR, talent development, and L&D professionals as they design and implement a succession planning strategy that meets the demands of the modern business environment.

Identifying Critical Skills and Competencies

The first step in a skill-based succession planning process is to identify the critical skills and competencies that are essential for the organization’s success, both now and in the future. This requires a thorough analysis of the organization’s strategic objectives, market trends, and the impact of technological advancements on the industry. The goal is to develop a clear picture of the skills that will drive innovation, customer satisfaction, and competitive advantage. This may include technical skills specific to the industry, as well as soft skills such as leadership, communication, and adaptability.

Creating a Skills Inventory

Once the critical skills and competencies have been identified, the next step is to create a comprehensive skills inventory of the current workforce. This involves assessing the skills and abilities of all employees, not just those in leadership positions or on a traditional succession path. Tools such as skills assessments, performance evaluations, and 360-degree feedback can provide valuable insights into the strengths and development needs of the workforce. This inventory serves as a baseline for identifying skill gaps and planning targeted development initiatives.

Fostering a Culture of Continuous Learning

A key component of skill-based succession planning is the creation of a culture that values and encourages continuous learning and development. This involves providing opportunities for employees to acquire new skills and refine existing ones through training programs, workshops, mentorship, and on-the-job experiences. It also means recognizing and rewarding learning and development achievements, thus motivating employees to take ownership of their professional growth.

Implementing Flexible Career Pathways

Traditional career progression models are often linear and hierarchical, limiting the mobility of talent within an organization. Skill-based succession planning, by contrast, promotes flexible career pathways that allow employees to move laterally across different roles and departments. This flexibility not only helps individuals find the best fit for their skills and interests but also enables the organization to more effectively deploy talent where it is needed most.

Reimagining Succession Planning: Prioritizing Skills over Titles

The evolving workplace demands a significant shift from traditional title-based to skill-based succession planning. According to Gabriel P.I, companies that engage in succession planning are actually practicing “replacement planning”, which is “the process of identifying short-term and long-term emergency backups to fill critical positions or to take the place of critical people.” They should instead combine replacement planning with actual succession planning, which focuses on skills and “ensure[s] leadership continuity in key positions, retain[s] and develops[s] intellectual and knowledge capital for the future, and encourage[s] individual advancement.”

Baselining and Measuring Soft Skills

Understanding and Evaluating Organizational Competencies

Establishing a clear baseline of the current skills and competencies within an organization is crucial. This foundational step allows for the identification of both strengths and gaps, setting the stage for targeted development plans. It’s particularly important to include soft skills in this baselining process, as they play a pivotal role in the adaptability, creativity, and resilience of the workforce.

Navigating the Measurement of Soft Skills

The perception that soft skills are inherently “unmeasurable” poses a significant challenge in talent development and succession planning. However, advances in psychological assessment offer a way forward. By employing psychometrically-validated tools, organizations can quantitatively evaluate soft skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence, and teamwork. Instruments like the Biographical Inventory of Creative Behaviors (BICB) and the Creative Process Assessment Scale (CPAS) exemplify resources that are not only reliable and freely available in scientific literature but also easy to administer. Particularly, the CPAS provides an invaluable lens for identifying individuals who excel in creative problem-solving across various stages of development.

Differentiating Succession from Replacement Planning

A pivotal distinction in the realm of talent management is that between succession and replacement planning. Succession planning is inherently forward-looking, focusing on preparing for the future by developing the potential within the organization. In contrast, replacement planning tends to be reactive, aiming to fill vacancies as they arise without necessarily considering long-term strategic goals. This critical distinction, highlighted in the work of Gabriel, P. I., Biriowu, C. S., & Dagogo, E. L. J. (2020), underscores the need for a proactive approach that not only addresses immediate needs but also aligns with the broader vision and objectives of the organization. By prioritizing succession planning, companies ensure a continuous pipeline of talent that is ready to meet both current and future challenges, thereby securing organizational resilience and competitive advantage.

In sum, baselining and measuring soft skills are integral to crafting a comprehensive and effective succession plan. Leveraging validated psychological methods to assess these competencies enables organizations to recognize and cultivate the full spectrum of talent within their ranks. Moreover, by distinguishing between succession and replacement planning, companies can adopt a more strategic and future-oriented approach to talent development, positioning themselves for sustained success in an ever-evolving business landscape.

Implementing a skill-based succession planning process requires a strategic approach, starting with a clear understanding of the organization’s long-term goals and the specific skills needed to achieve them. This chapter outlines a step-by-step guide to effectively integrate skill-based principles into your succession planning efforts.

Step 1: Define Strategic Objectives and Required Skills

Begin by identifying the strategic objectives of your organization over the next 5-10 years. Then, map out the critical skills required to achieve these objectives, focusing on both technical and soft skills that will drive future success.

Step 2: Assess Current Talent and Skill Gaps

Conduct a comprehensive assessment of your current workforce to determine the skills present within your organization and identify any gaps. Utilize precision skill development platforms for accurate assessments and to facilitate a deeper understanding of each employee’s capabilities and development areas.

Step 3: Develop Skill Development Paths

For each identified skill gap, create personalized development paths using precision skill development platforms. These paths should be tailored to meet the individual learning styles and career aspirations of your employees, ensuring engagement and effective skill acquisition.

Step 4: Foster a Culture of Continuous Learning

Cultivate an organizational culture that values continuous learning and development. Encourage managers to support their team members’ growth by providing regular feedback, mentoring opportunities, and access to necessary learning resources.

Step 5: Monitor Progress and Adjust Plans Accordingly

Regularly review the progress of your skill development initiatives and the effectiveness of your succession planning efforts. Be prepared to adjust development paths as business needs evolve and new skill requirements emerge.

Implementing a Skills Matrix

Creating a Skills Matrix: A Practical Guide

Implementing a skills matrix within your organization is a strategic step towards a comprehensive understanding of the skills, both hard and soft, that your workforce possesses. This chapter offers a step-by-step guide to developing this crucial tool, ensuring a practical approach to identifying skill gaps and planning for future development.

Assessment and Documentation of Employee Skills

The process begins by systematically assessing and recording each employee’s range of skills and competencies. This includes not just the technical or hard skills relevant to their current roles but also soft skills such as leadership, creativity, emotional intelligence, and teamwork. Employing validated psychological methods, as discussed in Chapter 4, can significantly enhance the accuracy and reliability of soft skills assessment, providing a solid foundation for the skills matrix.

Incorporating Validated Methods for Soft Skills Assessment

To effectively capture the nuances of soft skills, it’s essential to integrate validated assessment methods into the skills matrix development process. Tools like the Biographical Inventory of Creative Behaviors (BICB) and the Creative Process Assessment Scale (CPAS), which have been highlighted for their ease of administration and reliability, offer quantifiable insights into employees’ creative problem-solving abilities and other critical soft skills.

Why Validated Methods Matter

The importance of employing validated methods in the assessment process cannot be overstated. These scientifically-backed tools not only ensure that the data collected is reliable and meaningful but also allow for a more nuanced understanding of the workforce’s capabilities. This detailed insight is invaluable in aligning talent development efforts with organizational goals and identifying potential leaders with the right mix of skills for future challenges.

By following these steps and leveraging validated assessment methods, organizations can create a dynamic skills matrix that serves as a living document, continuously guiding talent development and succession planning efforts. This proactive approach ensures that the organization is not just prepared for the challenges of today but is also strategically positioned to embrace the opportunities of tomorrow. Through the effective implementation of a skills matrix, companies can cultivate a culture of continuous learning and adaptability, essential for success in the fast-evolving business landscape.

Transforming Evaluations into Actionable Succession Planning Insights

In skill-based succession planning, transforming employee evaluations into actionable insights is crucial. One effective method to achieve a comprehensive understanding of an employee’s skills is through 360-degree reviews combined with manager-peer evaluations. This multi-perspective approach can provide a well-rounded view of an employee’s competencies, strengths, and areas for development.

Implementing 360-degree Reviews and Manager-Peer Evaluations

To harness the full potential of 360-degree reviews and manager-peer evaluations, it’s important to base these assessments on specific, objective questions rather than subjective opinions. For instance, instead of asking if someone is a “good leader,” questions should focus on observable behaviors, such as “providing constructive feedback to team members” or “effectively delegates tasks.” This specificity ensures that the feedback is actionable and directly tied to skill development needs.

Example: A question in a 360-degree review might be, “How effectively does [Employee] adapt their communication style to different team members?” This question prompts reviewers to consider specific instances of adaptability and communication skills, offering clear insights into areas of strength and opportunities for growth.

Applying Social Sciences Principles: Triangulation in Assessments

Drawing upon social sciences, the concept of triangulation in qualitative studies is akin to the use of 360-degree reviews and manager-peer evaluations in the workplace. By gathering data from multiple sources – managers, peers, direct reports – organizations can paint a more accurate and complete picture of an employee’s current state and potential. This holistic view is essential for identifying the skills present within the organization and pinpointing those that need to be developed for future roles.

The Importance of Manager and Direct Report Feedback

The impressions of managers and direct reports play a significant role in providing a “full picture” of an employee’s performance and potential. Their day-to-day interactions offer valuable insights into how skills are applied in real-world settings, highlighting both achievements and areas for improvement. This feedback, when coupled with objective assessments, forms the foundation of actionable development plans tailored to each individual’s career trajectory.

By transforming evaluations into actionable insights, organizations can more effectively guide their succession planning efforts. This process not only identifies the leaders of tomorrow but also aligns employee development with the strategic needs of the business, ensuring a resilient and adaptable workforce.

The Role of Technology in Modern Succession Planning

As we navigate the complexities of modern succession planning, the strategic integration of technology has become indispensable. Advanced tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models, are at the forefront of revolutionizing how we identify, validate, and develop skills and competencies within our workforce. However, to unlock the full potential of these technologies, a foundational understanding of the proper taxonomy and measurement of skills is paramount.

Validating Skills with AI and Large Language Models

AI and large language models offer unparalleled opportunities to assess skills and competencies with a level of precision and objectivity previously unattainable. By analyzing vast amounts of data, these technologies can identify patterns and insights that human evaluators might overlook, providing a more accurate and comprehensive view of an employee’s capabilities.

However, the effectiveness of these technologies hinges on the existence of a well-defined skill taxonomy and robust measurement criteria. Without these elements, even the most advanced AI systems cannot effectively perform their tasks. It’s akin to having a highly sophisticated robot without giving it the instructions or the framework within which to operate. The message is clear: organizations must first ensure their skill frameworks are well-established and clearly defined before leveraging AI for skill validation.

The Potential of Generative AI in Skill Assessment

Generative AI represents a significant leap forward in skill assessment and validation. This technology can create realistic and complex scenarios that test a wide range of competencies, from technical skills to soft skills like leadership and empathy. These AI-generated simulations offer a dynamic and engaging way to assess skills in action, providing insights not just into what employees know, but how they apply their knowledge in real-world situations.

Skill-Based Taxonomy

At the forefront of leveraging technology in succession planning is Growthspace, renowned for its deep skill-based taxonomy. Growthspace’s platform offers the most comprehensive and detailed framework for skill and competency assessment available today. This rich taxonomy serves as the backbone for its AI-driven tools, ensuring that every skill assessment is rooted in a nuanced understanding of the specific capabilities needed for success in various roles and industries.

The role of technology in modern succession planning cannot be overstated. With tools like AI and platforms like Growthspace, organizations have at their disposal the means to transform how they assess, validate, and develop the skills of their workforce. However, the success of these technological interventions depends on a clear and comprehensive understanding of the skills they aim to measure. As we look to the future, embracing these advancements while grounding them in solid skill taxonomies will be key to unlocking the full potential of our human capital.

Cultivating Continuous Growth and Skill Development

In the heart of every thriving organization lies a culture committed to continuous skill development—a key driver for employee loyalty and retention. Research by Hassan and Siddiqui (2020) emphasizes the critical impact of effective succession planning practices on retaining top talent, highlighting the intricate dance between development initiatives and their mediating roles in employee satisfaction. Plus, a good succession planning initiative benefits the company as a whole because “it enables in bringing the right person forward to the key positions where all the business-related decisions are to be taken.”

Josh Bersin, in his insightful piece “Building A Skills-Based Organization: The Exciting But Sober Reality,” unpacks the journey and challenges faced by companies striving to become skills-based entities. Bersin demystifies the process, urging organizations to adopt a more nuanced, problem-focused approach to developing a corporate skills taxonomy. This approach, as opposed to the broad-stroke strategy of attempting to tag every conceivable skill, promises a more targeted and effective pathway to understanding and leveraging an individual’s unique capabilities.

“The reality,” Bersin notes, “is that skills have always been pivotal in business.” Reflecting on his own career beginnings, he underlines the age-old practice of companies seeking not just technical prowess but a deeper understanding of how candidates think and interact. This perspective challenges today’s trend of heavily leaning on AI tools to identify skills, suggesting that the most crucial competencies—often termed ‘PowerSkills’—are those that revolve around culture, ambition, and alignment.

Bersin’s narrative brings to light fascinating examples, like American Express’s shift from prioritizing customer service skills to valuing hospitality skills, emphasizing the importance of aligning skill development with organizational ethos and customer expectations. Such strategic realignments underscore the intricate relationship between skill identification, organizational needs, and the broader industry landscape.

Moreover, Bersin illustrates the tangible benefits of this skills-focused approach through various case studies. Companies like P&G, which honed in on specific challenges within their customer service department, saw remarkable improvements by developing a skills model that facilitated better organization and cross-training of staff. This problem-oriented method proved not just effective in addressing immediate issues but also invaluable in shaping a more adaptable and skilled workforce.

The narrative extends beyond just identifying skills to the pressing need for a dynamic, corporate-wide skills taxonomy—a monumental task fraught with complexity yet essential for modern business success. Bersin advocates for a step-by-step, problem-focused development of this taxonomy, stressing the importance of starting small and scaling over time.

In synthesizing these insights, it becomes evident that the future of effective succession planning and skill development lies in a tailored, problem-solving approach supported by technology. As organizations like Growthspace lead the way with deep, skill-based taxonomies, the path forward involves leveraging AI and other technological advancements not as a panacea but as tools to enhance a deeply human process of growth, learning, and development.

Creating a culture of continuous development is more than just a strategic imperative; it’s a commitment to nurturing a workforce that is resilient, adaptable, and aligned with the evolving needs of the business and its customers. Through thoughtful implementation of skill-based planning and the integration of technological tools, organizations can foster an environment where continuous learning and development are not just encouraged but embedded in the fabric of the company’s identity.

Practical Steps to Revamp Your Succession Planning

As organizations embrace the shift towards skill-based models, it’s crucial for HR and L&D leaders to understand the practical steps required for a successful transition. Drawing on insights from industry experts like Josh Bersin, this chapter offers a comprehensive checklist and actionable tips for revamping your organization’s succession planning processes.

Checklist for Transitioning to a Skill-Based Model:

  • Assess Current State: Begin with a thorough assessment of your existing succession planning process. Identify areas where skills are already being considered and where traditional role-based planning prevails.
  • Define Skills Taxonomy: Develop a dynamic skills taxonomy tailored to your organization’s needs. Engage with different business units to ensure they reflect the diverse skills across the company.
  • Implement Skills Assessments: Utilize validated assessment tools to evaluate the current skills of your workforce. Focus on both hard and soft skills, ensuring a holistic view of each employee’s capabilities.
  • Create Talent Pools: Shift from identifying successors for specific roles to creating talent pools based on skills. This approach fosters greater flexibility and adaptability in your succession planning.
  • Personalized Development Plans: Ensure development plans are customized to meet the unique needs and aspirations of each employee, aligning with both the individual’s career goals and the strategic needs of the organization.
  • Leverage Technology: Utilize AI and other technologies to support the identification, assessment, and development of skills within your workforce. Tools like Growthspace can offer deep insights into your employees’ skills and potential.
  • Regularly Update Skills Matrix: Maintain an up-to-date skills matrix that reflects the evolving capabilities of your workforce and the changing needs of your business.
  • Foster a Continuous Learning Culture: Encourage continuous skill development, making it a core part of your organization’s culture. This not only supports succession planning but also enhances overall employee engagement and retention.

Tips for Maintaining and Updating Your Skills Matrix and Succession Plans:

  • Engage Leadership: Secure ongoing support and involvement from senior leaders to emphasize the importance of skill-based succession planning.
  • Encourage Employee Self-Assessment: Empower employees to regularly update their skills profiles and career aspirations within your HR systems.
  • Utilize Feedback Loops: Implement mechanisms for continuous feedback from employees and managers to keep the skills matrix relevant and accurate.
  • Review Regularly: Schedule periodic reviews of your skills matrix and succession plans to ensure they align with current business strategies and workforce dynamics.
  • Embrace Agility: Be prepared to adapt your succession planning processes as your organization evolves, staying flexible to accommodate new roles, skills, and business needs.

Future Trends in Succession Planning

The landscape of succession planning is continuously evolving, influenced by changing workforce dynamics, technological advancements, and shifts in organizational priorities. Based on the current trajectory and insights from thought leaders like Josh Bersin, this chapter explores predictions for the future of succession planning.

  • Increased Emphasis on Soft Skills: As the importance of culture, agility, and adaptability grows, organizations will place greater emphasis on assessing and developing soft skills alongside technical competencies.
  • Greater Use of AI and Data Analytics: The use of AI tools and data analytics in succession planning will become more sophisticated, offering deeper insights into workforce capabilities and potential career paths.
  • Personalized Career Pathing: With the rise of skills-based planning, employees will benefit from more personalized career pathing options, allowing for more fluid movement across roles and functions
  • Dynamic Succession Planning: Succession planning will become more dynamic and less tied to traditional hierarchical structures. Organizations will adopt more flexible approaches to identifying and preparing talent for future needs.
  • Integration of Talent Mobility: The lines between succession planning, talent mobility, and employee development will blur, with organizations adopting a more integrated approach to managing their talent ecosystem.
  • Focus on Continuous Learning: Continuous learning and development will be integral to succession planning, with organizations investing in platforms and programs that support ongoing skill enhancement.
  • Expansion of Talent Pools: Organizations will expand their talent pools beyond internal candidates to include gig workers, freelancers, and external talent networks, recognizing the value of diverse skills and experiences.
  • Emphasis on Diversity and Inclusion: Succession planning will increasingly focus on promoting diversity and inclusion, ensuring that talent pools reflect the rich diversity of the workforce and society.

As organizations navigate these trends, the key to success will lie in their ability to remain agile, continuously adapt their approaches, and embrace technology and innovation to support their evolving succession planning needs.


As we conclude this guide on skill-based succession planning, let’s reflect on the transformative journey organizations are undertaking to align their talent development strategies with the evolving landscape of the modern workplace. The transition to a skill-based approach represents a profound shift in how we perceive and cultivate potential within our workforce, emphasizing the importance of skills and competencies over traditional hierarchies and titles.

The key benefits of adopting a skill-based approach to succession planning are manifold. Organizations become more agile and able to respond swiftly to market changes and technological advancements by leveraging a workforce that is continually developing the skills needed for the future. This approach fosters a more inclusive and equitable environment, where talent from diverse backgrounds and experiences has the opportunity to shine and advance based on their abilities and potential. Moreover, by prioritizing continuous learning and development, companies not only enhance their competitive edge but also boost employee engagement, retention, and satisfaction.

Looking ahead, the future of succession planning is poised to be more dynamic and integrated, with a stronger emphasis on soft skills, technological innovation, and personalized career pathways. The integration of AI and data analytics will offer deeper insights into talent capabilities, enabling more precise and effective planning. Meanwhile, the expansion of talent pools to include non-traditional candidates will enrich organizational diversity and innovation.

To prepare your organization for this future, it is imperative to begin by reassessing your current succession planning processes, embracing the principles outlined in this guide. Engage leadership and employees alike in the transition, ensuring that the shift towards a skill-based model is collaborative and aligned with your organizational values and goals. Leverage technology judiciously, allowing AI and data analytics to enhance your understanding of the workforce while maintaining a focus on the human elements of growth and development.

In closing, the journey toward a skill-based succession planning model is both a challenge and an opportunity. It demands a reevaluation of long-standing practices and opens the door to a more adaptable, resilient, and future-ready organization. By embracing this shift, you are not only preparing your organization for the uncertainties of tomorrow but also investing in a culture that values and cultivates the full potential of every employee. The path forward is clear: to thrive in the evolving business landscape, we must prioritize skills, learning, and adaptability, building a workforce that is equipped to navigate the future with confidence and creativity.

About the Author

Jerome L. Rekart is the founder and principal of Research Forward, a consulting firm specializing in the use of social and behavioral science techniques to design learning and training to ensure maximal efficacy and evaluate its transfer and impact to the workplace. He is also the Chief Learning Architect of Etch Learning, Inc. and is a faculty member in the Department of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the Berklee College of Music. In his prior roles as Vice President of Research and Insight for Southern New Hampshire University’s (SNHU) Office of Product and Program Innovation and as Associate Vice-President of Learning Science and Workforce Insight for the University’s Workforce Partnerships department, he led teams of researchers who worked with corporate and non-profit stakeholders to measure and characterize the impact and value of innovative and experimental educational offerings. Before joining SNHU, he was a tenured professor of Education and Psychology at Rivier University. He is the author of the book “The Cognitive Classroom” (Rowman & Littlefield Education), as well as articles examining the skills that employers believe AI will replace in the workplace and the impact of skills-based training for retail workers. He earned his B.S. in Biochemistry from Indiana University, his M.S. and Ph.D. in Psychology from Northwestern University, and did his postdoctoral training at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Discover the Growthspace difference

Discover the Growthspace difference

Discover the Growthspace difference

Discover the Growthspace difference