Sandra Reder, president and founder of HR consulting firm Vertical Bridge, and Go2HR CEO Arlene Keis outline how to prepare a backup plan

1. Identify key positions
“Look at every single job, and if that person was to walk in and say goodbye, how much of an impact would it have on your ability to deliver on your programs, your services, your products or to keep your business going?” says Reder. “A lot of people think succession planning is just for leadership continuity, but it really is for critical skill and knowledge and potential technical and organizational knowledge as well,” notes Keis.

2. Assess the competencies and skills required
You also need a way to incorporate that knowledge into the rest of your organization, says Keis. Reder advises asking incumbents to put together a procedures manual, if appropriate to the position. “It’s a great way to engage them if you say, look, we want to put a procedures manual together so we really understand what you do in the event that you, say, win the lottery.”

3. Pinpoint potential understudies
“Target the specific individuals that have these skills, discuss it with them, and create a development and retention plan with them so that you’re engaging—it’s not something you’re doing to them, you’re doing it with them,” says Keis. “It’s much easier to grow from within than to have to pull someone in who is new to your company,” notes Reder, who advises using performance reviews to spot which people are promotable in all key areas.

4. Cross-train
Use cross-training techniques to ensure more than one person is capable of performing essential tasks or have the incumbent mentor someone else. “Even at the higher level that can be done to some extent,” says Reder. “Most people in a job like to learn, they like to be challenged, so if they’re being cross-trained like that, it makes their jobs more interesting, and it’s a form of engagement.”

5. Constantly recruit
“If you get unsolicited resumés, it may be worth somebody’s while to make one phone call and chat with that person and say, We have nothing available right now, but what are you looking for?” says Reder. “Just take some minimal notes.” Then if a key employee does leave, you can call back to see if the person is still interested. “You should never have to start from scratch.”