How to Build a Sustainable Talent Pipeline

Being prepared to fill vacancies in top leadership positions is a critical priority for the future success of any organization, as retirement and executives who leave to pursue other opportunities are inevitable. A sustainable talent pipeline is one that is ready to produce candidates for open positions quickly, as top talent is continually being identified and prepared to take the next steps. Rather than scrambling to accommodate last-minute notice or even having a few weeks for a planned departure, successful organizations are focusing on succession planning by creating a talent pipeline that starts with middle management and continues through to the executive level.

The Capacity for Leadership

The purpose of succession planning is to eliminate the irreplaceable. In the event of a surprise resignation, organizations that are unprepared can suffer from a domino effect caused by the immediate need to fill a high-level leadership position, and the cascading gaps down the succession line as individuals are shifted up. Companies should also not be rushing to create a succession plan on the fly or relying on a single promising individual to fill any positions, as the future is always filled with the unexpected.

Along with future considerations, a company that is focused on employee growth and development is more competitive in terms of recruitment and retention. By creating a workplace that attracts top industry talent and investing in ways to keep that talent around for the long run, organizations will expand their overall capacity for leadership and possess an engaged workforce that feels valuable to the business and is committed to its long-term success.

Building a Sustainable Pipeline

The first step in building a sustainable talent pipeline is to identify the key roles in your organization and define what success looks like in each of these roles. This list should extend well beyond the executive suites and include all levels of management in the company. Including as much detail as possible is important to both identify individuals within the organization that meet the criteria already and to develop promising talent with the right skill sets to achieve readiness. It will also help identify areas of crossover from one position to another so high potential people can be prepared with a range of competencies.

Once you know what you are working toward, the following steps should be taken to build a strong pipeline:

  • Aligning Organization Expectations. Succession planning should be part of the broader business plan and focus on the company’s current and future needs. When the succession process is aligned with the long-term needs of the business, then it will be flexible and robust enough to withstand the changing nature of today’s business climate.
  • Performance Calibration. Employees need consistency in terms of evaluating their individual progress and in understanding the expectations for roles of increasing responsibility. Performance calibration has the goal of improving the fairness of performance reviews by defining a standard set of criteria with which to measure employees to achieve greater satisfaction among the ranks with compensation scales, promotions, and succession decisions. The calibration process should also standardize the definition of high performance, so managers can optimally justify ratings and identify high potential candidates for development plans.
  • Talent Reviews. This process should be distinct from individual performance reviews and engage a specific model for defining and recognizing high potential individuals who may be ready to join the succession pipeline. Those identified should have a record of high performance across many challenges, and this performance should go beyond technical competencies. Talent reviews should seek those who are resilient, agile, and ambitious, along with being a good personal fit for the company’s mission, not just it’s goals.
  • Experiential Development. The only way to ensure that a talent pipeline is sustainable for the long term is to incorporate development into the process, and leadership development must be present for all management positions, not just the c-suite. Once high potential individuals are identified, action plans should be created to boost their skills and experience in preparation for positions of higher responsibility. Plus, as people are moved into middle management positions that are on track for higher placement, they should also be equipped with the skills they need to support their teams and to develop the newest team members to keep the pipeline full. Experiential learning is vital here, as classrooms and seminars have low retention rates while a hands-on method not only has better information retention, but also helps individuals build skill sets faster, more accurately and with greater engagement.
  • Measure Impact. The best succession plans are continuously monitored and improved to ensure that goals are being met. The ability to quantify the results of succession planning will not only ensure better results but will also provide the justification for budget managers to continue devoting company resources to the talent pipeline. Each organization will have its own metrics that are based on specific goals. However, factors such as tenure, readiness and engagement can help to gauge abstract concepts, and concrete numbers such as production rates and revenue can give financial perspective. A big-picture look is necessary to see how the pipeline is functioning overall, but a detailed examination of an individual’s progress or a team’s progression can also be a source of demonstrating the impact of development actions and how the activities have driven success rates overall.

The Rewards of Preparation

Succession planning and the development of a talent pipeline have clear implications for unavoidable circumstances such as retirement and resignation. What’s more, when employees are given development opportunities with clear paths for promotion within the company, the company will also benefit from a more engaged, productive, and profitable workforce. In other words, in preparing for the future, companies will yield visible gains every step of the way.

If your organization doesn’t currently have a sustainable talent pipeline, or if you’re unsure whether your current process is strong enough to safeguard your company through an everchanging business landscape, we’re here to help. Contact Michael Grubich at 262-786-9200 or via email at, if you have questions or to schedule a consultation.