Succession Planning

What is it?

Succession planning is a process for ensuring continuity in critical roles. A role may be considered critical if it has a significant impact on the organization’s mission and/or would be particularly difficult to fill if vacant. Examples of roles often considered critical in rural health care include senior leaders like CEO, CNO, CFO, and Nursing Home Administrator, specialized medical staff, and technical roles like Registered Nurse and Ultrasound Technologist.

Succession planning involves identifying future staffing needs and proactively taking action to ensure these needs are met. Taking action may involve developing the knowledge and skills of internal staff who can take over the role when a vacancy becomes available, or proactively identifying a pool of potential internal or external candidates who may be able to fill the role in the future. When succession planning is done well, recruiting is much easier and results in better hiring outcomes — because much of the important groundwork is already in place. Steps in the succession planning process include:

Best Practices in Succession Planning

Identifying job requirements and characteristics of successful candidates

  • Look forward, not backward. What environment will staff be working in 1-3 years from now, and what will the job entail as a result? Identify the accomplishments, skills, and knowledge truly required to be successful over the next 1-3 years.

  • For positions where education is not tied to licensing, many employers have been taking a second look at whether a degree is truly necessary for a given job or if skills and experience are what’s most important. In many circumstances where degrees have been found to be unnecessary, larger and more diverse applicant pools have resulted.

  • Think carefully about knowledge and skill requirements. Distinguish between what new employees need to know from the moment they walk in the door versus what can be learned over time.

  • Get input from the incumbent as well, as they have the most realistic picture of the requirements of the job. Reaffirm that succession planning is not only important for ensuring continuity — it’s an essential part of employee development and career planning as well. If you successfully help your current employees grow and develop, they will likely eventually transition into another role. Succession planning makes this transition as seamless as possible.

Creating a talent pipeline

  • Identify people inside and outside your organization who could potentially be a good fit for critical roles. Consider also including internal staff who may be able to step into the role on a temporary basis in the event of an unexpected vacancy.

  • Ask others inside and outside your organization for recommendations.

  • As you communicate with others, be upfront about the purpose of these activities. Explain the role that succession planning plays in long-term career planning and development, and reassure others that the current employees do not have plans to leave the organization.

Developing an action plan to prepare/source potential successors

  • Talk to other leaders in your organization about the importance of succession planning. Make a plan together to support each other’s succession planning activities.

  • Where possible, make it a practice to cross-train employees. Cross-training may involve formal classroom-style learning, job shadowing, or on-the-job experiences.

  • Follow the best practices outlined in the Learning & Development section of this toolkit to develop the internal staff skills and knowledge.

  • Work with your agency’s HR department to develop formal plans and systems for cross-training and succession planning.

  • Ensure that day-to-day work processes are documented in such a way that new employees can perform both the simple and more complex job responsibilities as soon as possible.

  • Maintain a strong network of external contacts, including other health care organizations, rural health networks, local colleges and universities, your State Office of Rural Health, and others who may be able to help you connect with potential successors for critical roles. 

Re-assessing the plan

  • Review your succession plan annually at a minimum. Evaluate job descriptions and qualifications for critical positions to be sure they accurately reflect the requirements of the job.

  • Adjust your pipeline and action plans accordingly.

Succession Planning Tools

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National Rural Health Resource Center

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National Rural Health Resource Center

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Key Takeaways

  • Succession planning is not only important for ensuring continuity — it’s an essential part of employee development and career planning.

  • Incumbent staff play an integral role in succession planning.

  • Collaborate with others to support succession planning across your organization.

  • Consider cross-training internal staff through classroom learning, job shadowing, or other on-the-job experiences.

  • Nurture your external pipeline through regular communication.

“Few things matter more than connecting with employees, but we often get caught up in day-to-day work. When we make a sincere effort to find out how they’re doing, and take action from what we learn, people will be more likely to stay with us for the long term.”

Q. Studer
Studer, Q. (2020). The Busy Leader's Handbook: How To Lead People and Places That Thrive. Wiley


Rural Health Care Succession  Planning in Action

When a member of the executive leadership team at St. James Parish Hospital in Lutcher, Louisiana announced plans to retire, the succession plan for that position was activated.

Because an internal successor had already been identified, the transition took place gradually over the course of a full year. This gave the successor plenty of time to learn from the incumbent and maintain continuity in the position.


National Rural Health Resource Center

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