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Ensuring leadership continuity in the Australian Public Service: A guide to succession management

Please note - this is an archived publication.

Ensuring Leadership Continuity in the Australian Public Service builds on the Australian Public Service Commission’s 2003 publication Managing Succession in the Australian Public Service.

The Managing Succession booklet provides more detailed advice about the key concepts and principles of effective succession management, working within the APS Values framework, and strategic and design issues.

NB: The Commission acknowledges the valuable contribution of the Australian Taxation Office to the development of this document.

Stop and consider your agency’s future …..

Are you confident there will be leadership continuity beyond your tenure?

Are the following factors known?

  • the ‘bench strength’ for critical leadership positions—the number of qualified, high potential and ready candidates who could successfully fill key vacancies
  • the career intentions of the leadership team…or the most valued technical specialists
  • the approach to managing short term replacements —the ability to safeguard critical capabilities with immediate backup
  • the readiness and motivation of staff to progress to future leadership roles
  • the most important skills and capabilities required in the agency
  • emerging candidates—the potential feeder group(s) for senior leadership roles
  • whether the agency’s current high performers have the potential to work effectively at the next level
  • whether there is enough emphasis on building the leadership function within the agency
  • whether individual and organisational development strategies are targeted accurately
  • whether the approach to building leadership capability is disciplined and comprehensive enough to meet future needs.

If you answered ‘no’ to some of these questions—you are not alone.

Many agencies are in the same boat and are facing the same concerns. Leadership capability and continuity is no longer only a matter for the future. It is an issue for the present and in some cases needs immediate action.

Succession management—A strategy to ensure the availability and sustainability of a supply of capable staff, ready to assume key or critical roles, subject to a competitive selection process.
(Australian Public Service Commission, 2003)

Message from the Commissioner

It is no secret that the Australian Public Service is facing difficulty recruiting and retaining quality people across a number of critical areas. In particular our leadership capability is at risk, the workforce is ageing and there is limited experience and breadth in the leadership feeder group.

Over 40% of our ongoing workforce is eligible for retirement in the next 10 years. We stand to lose up to 48% of those in Executive Level positions and a staggering 71% of the SES. The median length of service at SES level is less than five years with a significant proportion having only worked in one agency for their entire APS career. This is our new reality, gone are the days when managers could refine their leadership skills with time and experience. People with potential move up quickly and our agencies must have the systems in place to ensure they develop the capabilities (if not the experience) required to be leaders in the APS.

Are we prepared?

It is my view that to ensure the ongoing professionalism and quality of APS leaders urgent steps are required. Succession planning is a key part of the response.

Succession planning minimises the risk of relying on the external labour market to fill positions which can be an increasingly fraught approach in the current highly competitive context. International research has found that succession planning is also linked to organisational success, with internally developed leaders proving better performers than their externally sourced equivalents.

The idea of succession planning in the APS sits uneasily with many managers and staff who see it as raising concerns of nepotism, nonalignment with the Values and the creation of a ‘chosen’ group. It is time that these attitudes moved on and people accepted that succession planning is about ensuring the ongoing success of agencies and the APS.

This change must be driven by agency heads. It is only this level of authority that can bring about the shift in attitude necessary for succession planning to be effective. It is incumbent on the head of the organisation to drive this process and demand support from the most senior team to champion and implement succession management. Line managers will also need to own their part of it. The HR function should support and facilitate the key processes in which the agency head and senior executive team, line managers, and high potential employees participate.

Succession management is not impossible to do: the difficult part is getting commitment across the organisation.

A culture which identifies high potential people and accelerates their exposure to a wide range of developmental experiences needs to be built.

The APS needs a culture in which senior managers reach further down the organisation to identify and develop high potential employees, and to manage the anticipated ripple or knock-on effects as people move into different roles.

Critical questions for agencies are:

  • Who are the potential successors across the agency for senior executive leadership roles?
  • How many people are waiting, ready now to assume those roles?
  • Who are the promising Executive Level staff who could step competently and soon into SES roles?
  • Who are the ‘best and brightest’ at APS levels with the capacity to move one or two or more organisational levels and assume leadership positions in the future?

This booklet, aimed at both managers and HR areas, contains a detailed discussion of elements of the succession planning process and provides some practical tools for use by agencies. It represents a broad strategy for the whole of the APS which, over time, will be complemented with specific strategies for segments of the APS workforce, such as the SES cohort.

We no longer have the luxury of waiting for solutions to arrive. An active approach is required and the time to act is now.

Lynelle Briggs
Australian Public Service Commissioner

Succession management in context

While there is significant talent in the senior executive service (SES), the median length of service has fallen to less than five years and a significant proportion has only worked in one agency in their entire APS career1.

The Commission also published Building Business Capability through Workforce Planning in 2006, which provides practical advice for tackling workforce planning, and which clearly positions succession management within the context of developing the organisation for the future.

The earlier the identification of high potential is made within an individual’s career, the longer lead time to provide exposure to a wide range of developmental experiences. The later the potential is identified, the greater the need for accelerated development.

Although there is impressive technical knowledge and experience across the APS, urgent steps are required to ensure that senior leaders develop the breadth of experience and capability needed to guide their organisations effectively.

The APS employment framework does not prevent the identification and nurturing of capable staff with potential to progress to higher roles. It requires, simply, that any such approaches are consistent with merit and that they are transparent, equitable and fair.

Succession management helps build organisational capacity by developing a competitive internal field from which vacancies in leadership or specialist roles can be filled, subject to open and competitive selection processes.

Agencies can use the external labour market, lateral recruitment from other APS agencies and possibly, the short-term purchase of skills. However, reliance on external sources of leadership capability is expensive and risky, given a tight labour market for senior leaders and a high failure rate2.

Within the context of a highly competitive Australian workforce, the external market is no substitute for developing capability from within. Similarly, relying on transfers at level from other agencies is not a sufficient long term strategy. Simply ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ does little to ensure the ongoing development of leadership capability across the APS. International research has highlighted that succession planning is also linked to organisational success, with internally developed leaders proving better performers than externally recruited leaders.

The Management Advisory Committee has clearly highlighted the imperative for agencies to undertake systematic workforce planning and succession management3. To assist, the Commission published Managing Succession in the APS, to guide agencies in developing an understanding of succession management issues and approaches. However, the issue remains very much ‘on the table’, and is a shared concern across the APS.

What’s the issue?

There is a critical and immediate need to identify those with the potential to succeed in senior executive management and higher roles, and to ensure that they have appropriately broad and rounded experience. Agencies need to know their ‘bench strength’, that is, the number of qualified, capable and available candidates who could successfully fill vacancies in key roles.

Succession into SES roles from the Executive Level feeder group is the next tier in the process. There is also a longer-term need for early identification of APS staff with high potential i.e. the capacity to move one, two or more organisational levels and assume leadership positions in the future.

In some instances, immediate back-up is required—in others there may be more lead time for broadening careers and growing the capacity of future leaders.

Who is responsible?

The agency head has ultimate accountability for nurturing and bringing forward the capability development of employees with high potential: he or she is the driver of the process.

However, effective succession management relies on genuine collaboration between a number of key players, to build the required capability and readiness.

Senior executive managers and their line managers are the owners of the process. Their role includes:

  • championing the process within their parts of the organisation and driving the implementation
  • making key decisions about critical roles and high potential and emerging employees
  • conducting career conversations
  • assisting in identifying development needs
  • working collaboratively with other managers to identify and implement real development experiences and dismantle barriers to their implementation.

Human Resource areas facilitate the process, developing tools and systems to support decision-making by management. High potential employees, who are the focus of the process and whose role it is to develop personal insight, commit to the development process and maintain high performance through challenging developmental experiences.

Further information on the roles, responsibilities and relationships associated with succession management is available on this site.

What about merit?

Succession planning in the APS often raises concerns about being anti-merit. The development of an acceleration pool or the identification of high potential employees can be seen by some as by-passing competitive selection processes and contrary to the APS Values.

Under the APS Values, an employment decision must be based on merit (section 10(1)(b)). An agency head must ensure that recruitment and selection policies and practices in their agency are merit-based. An employee involved in recruitment and selection must act in a way that is consistent with the merit Value.

A merit-based decision relating to the engagement or promotion of an ongoing employee must comply with section 10(2) which requires all of the following:

  • an assessment of the relative suitability of the candidates for the duties using a competitive selection process (section 10(2)(a))
  • an assessment based on the relationship between the candidates’ work-related qualities and the work-related qualities genuinely required for the duties (section 10(2)(b))
  • the assessment to focus on the relative capacity of the candidates to achieve outcomes related to the duties (section 10(2)(c))
  • the assessment to be the primary consideration in making the decision (section 10(2)(d)).

In addition, the purpose of the selection process must be determined in advance, information about the process must be readily available to applicants and the selection process must be transparent and applied fairly (Direction 2.3).

Succession planning practices cannot provide absolute or ‘fait accompli’ decisions regarding filling vacancies. Actual engagement and promotion decisions are made as the need arises through a competitive process.

Succession planning is not anti-merit, and its emphasis on development is very much in line with the APS Values.

A guide to ensuring leadership continuity

The following guide outlines the four key stages involved in working through the succession management process. The principles outlined in each are applicable for different contexts, for example, in relation to senior leadership or technical/ specialist roles—those areas where there is a need to build ‘bench strength’ to ensure continuity of performance in the event of a vacancy.

The key process areas are:

  1. Focus on the roles: identify objectives, risks and priorities.
  2. Focus on the people: develop assessments of potential and target the succession management effort.
  3. Plan and do: design and implement development strategies.
  4. Evaluate and measure outcomes.

Objectives might include achieving business imperatives, building senior bench strength, developing long-term talent for future leadership roles, ensuring business continuity, identifying high-potential employees, developing back-up for critical technical positions…some or all of these, or others.

Key process area 1. Focus on the roles: Identify objectives, risks and priorities

Are you looking at a few critical, highly senior positions or looking further into the organisation to build a ‘pipeline’ for longer term leadership continuity through all levels?

Will you focus on critical technical capabilities?

Are you looking at individual roles, or groups of roles, or, indeed, types of capability?

Will you segment the organisation and focus your efforts on one particular functional area?

  • The key is to be clear about the objectives upfront.
  • A key decision is how many organisational levels to include in the succession process.

Know your critical roles and the risks

Which roles are key to the agency’s long-term viability:

  • now?
  • soon?
  • in the future?

You may need to make some decisions about roles that are no longer going to be required, or about whether some individuals need to move out of critical roles4 to make room for others. Could the work be organised differently? In some circumstances, it may be more useful to consider managing the work to be done rather than managing a succession process.

Identify the nature of your succession risks. Do they relate to risk of vacancy in critical leadership positions, or to potential successors not being ready to step up to the challenge when a vacancy arises? Are you facing capability gaps in critical areas?

It may be helpful to think about risk within the context of the importance or criticality of the position or capability in question. Identify the critical positions upon which the organisation is particularly reliant, assess the risk of the present incumbent leaving, and work out the bench strength for these positions i.e. the number of people with the potential, motivation and who are ‘ready now’ to assume those roles.

Assess the risk of departure

This can be done quite simply by looking at the available data (factors such as age, length of service, mobility, learning and development undertaken, and other individual career or personal characteristics known to the agency) or other organisational or environmental factors.

Managers can look to see if a particular employee is showing dissatisfaction with their current role or perceived career path, or has expressed plans or exhibited behaviours which indicate an intention to leave.

A useful approach is to undertake a career conversation with incumbents to gauge their interest and intentions about staying with the organisation.

Whilst an objective of succession management is to improve ‘bench strength’ and develop a leadership ‘pipeline’ through the organisation, promotion from within and external appointments are not the only choices.

Think about streamlining work processes, shifting work, outsourcing, or insourcing to other units. Ref Rothwell 2004 Beyond Succession Management: New Directions and Fresh Approaches

Risk/criticality matrix

You can map critical positions, roles or capabilities against assessed risk of departure on a 3x3 risk analysis matrix.

Use the understanding gained from this analysis to prioritise where you will put your efforts. For example, initial efforts would be targeted in the highest risk, highest impact quadrant and prioritised from there.

This risk/criticality matrix can be used to provide a snapshot to assist decision-making about those roles which enable an agency to deliver on its primary obligations.

Often, senior executive leadership roles are identified as being critical to an agency’s performance. However, critical roles may also be at other levels and require particular technical or management capabilities depending on the nature of the agency’s business.

In some agencies, succession management may focus on professional roles where expertise is not readily available outside the organisation and is not likely to be a focus for development anywhere outside the organisation.

Using the matrix

Map positions onto the matrix according to their criticality and the assessed risk of departure by the current incumbent(s).

Using your understanding of the capabilities required for high performance in these roles, target immediate capability-building towards the roles identified in quadrant 1.

Subsequent analysis and effort can encompass those positions which fall into quadrants 2, 3 and possibly 4 and 5.

Sharing better practice

The Australian Tax Office (ATO) has developed a comprehensive and detailed approach to determining the likelihood, consequences and level of risk associated with employees leaving key roles.

A list of possible questions for a career conversation, Succession Management Discussion tool.

The following is the Australian Taxation Office’s approach to determining the importance of positions - Focus questions to determine succession risks.

The Australian Tax Office uses a succession management model, which was created specifically to support succession and talent management across their office, to provide a snapshot of their infrastructure.

Risk / Criticality Matrix
Criticality Risk
  • degree to which the agency’s business would be interrupted or hampered if position left vacant
  • impact of position on agency’s performance (consider factors such as advice role to government, service delivery responsibility, revenue, breadth/ scope and profile of role, client interaction of impact, strategic influence)
  • degree of consequences on agency performance if role unfilled
  • inherent requirements of position (experience, technical capability, educational pre-requisites or other ‘barriers’)
  • risk of departure of key player (hence risk of vacancy in critical leadership position)
  • prospects for losing a valued employee or group of employees
  • possible impact of factors such as remuneration relativities, future (perceived or real) career opportunities, stage of career, degree of favourable professional experience in role, aspiration for future advancement, degree of commitment and engagement with senior agenda in organisation, demographic factors


  • Highly specialist capabilities requiring qualifications and/or extensive, specific experience
  • Difficult to source successors from within organisation or on external labour market
  • Extensive training period for successor to perform effectively
  • Negative impacts on business outcomes if employee leaves
  • Role cannot be redesigned or redistributed
5. Low vacancy risk/ highly critical role or capability 3* Medium vacancy risk/highly critical role or capability

1* High vacancy risk/highly critical role or capability

  • Primary focus
  • Individual role/capability or like roles/capabilities
  • Address succession issues related to this quadrant in initial phase


  • Specialist capabilities with limited internal or external potential successors
  • Significant training period for successor to perform effectively
  • Significant impact if employee leaves
  • Role not easily redesigned or redistributed
  4* Medium vacancy risk/significant role/ capability 2* High vacancy risk/ significant role/capability


  • Broad and widely available capabilities
  • Minimal impact if employee leaves and/or role ends
  • Short lead time to train effective successor
  • Role can be redesigned and/or redistributed


  • Little/no intention of departure, although could occur


  • Some probability of departure


  • Almost certain departure within next 12 months

Key process area 2. Focus on the people: Develop assessments of potential and target the succession management effort

See Case in point: Capability

A high potential employee is one considered to have the ability to take on higher and/or more complex leadership challenges. Depending on the context, this may mean progressing one, two or more organisational levels in future, or taking on broader and more critical roles at the same level.

It is important to clarify what is meant by high potential in your particular context, as it may ‘look’ different in different organisations.

A clear understanding of the capabilities required for success in leadership roles—and those that feed into them—is paramount, so that the agency has a template against which to assess potential and target development strategies.

The APS Integrated Leadership System provides a comprehensive and forward looking definition of the requirements of executive and senior executive leaders. It provides an excellent foundation upon which additional agency-specific leadership capabilities can be identified.

Not every high performing employee should be considered to be high potential. A key element of potential is whether the person has the aspiration and motivation to progress into more demanding leadership roles.

That is, do they want to take on more senior roles?

Are they committed to the organisation and to developing an expanded capability set?

These attributes can be as important as having the ability.

Research by the Corporate Leadership Council suggests that an individual must have sufficient of each of aspiration, engagement and ability in order to succeed in future leadership roles5.

If someone has a track record of performance and long-term commitment to the organisation, but is not interested in future promotion, there won’t be a match with the organisation’s succession management needs.

A focus on performance is not sufficient in itself: it should support a comprehensive and forward-looking assessment of potential.

How do we identify or measure potential?

It is impossible to predict a person’s potential to assume greater roles with 100% confidence or complete objectivity. A range of factors may however assist an agency to develop an accurate and comprehensive picture of the person’s potential. In fact, best practice literature suggests that the use of multiple factors or measures increases the degree of validity in any assessment of potential.

Relevant information to consider could include:

  • current performance, capability strengths and gaps, results and performance ratings
  • corporate knowledge and experience which will be relevant in future
  • biographical data
  • career preferences and intentions
  • individual nominations, supported by the views of a range of others
  • observed behaviour
  • behavioural interviews to determine past performance in challenging situations
  • 360° feedback
  • manager assessment of certain characteristics for example, decision-making, risk analysis, problem solving, strategic capacity, emotional intelligence, adaptability, commitment to learning6, mapped against a template of future leadership requirements
  • external assessment tools including psychometric testing (such as work style, leadership or motivation inventories), to identify strengths and potential ‘derailing’ factors7
  • assessment centre data based on realistic simulation exercises, case studies and interviews, designed against future critical role and leadership requirements.

Be aware that performance points to track record and credibility but not necessarily suitability or appropriateness for a more senior and demanding role. Performance management data provides a useful starting point, but is not sufficient in itself. Don’t rely on it solely to gauge potential.

The Commission has 360° tools specifically tailored to the ILS for SES and EL levels.

‘Derailers’ could include: demonstrated characteristics in significantly stressful times which inhibit leadership capacity and effectiveness; a strength which no longer matters or which becomes a weakness; or, a flaw which has an impact.

Cost considerations must obviously be taken into account in relation to formal assessment tools, balanced against the need to maximise the degree of objectivity.

Agencies could consider using these tools with a smaller subset of those considered to have high potential on the basis of the more informal and less resource- intensive assessment mechanisms.

Assessment does not tell the whole story

Some high potential employees may put themselves on ‘pause’ by choice due to, for example, balancing work and family commitments, or other personal circumstances. While these career preferences and intentions may change over time, these employees need to be valued for the contribution they make at their current level, and strategies put in place to continue their development and retain them for the longer term.

High potential employees often move comparatively quickly through various roles (laterally or vertically). They may be at different stages of their career, and differ in their experience levels, but nonetheless will all have individualised development needs which need to be addressed (refer section on ‘Effectively accelerating the development of leadership experience’).

Remember that an assessment of potential is not necessarily an assessment of development needs. Nor is it an assessment of readiness or fit for a new role or work context.

People who have potential still need to be developed to be successful: high potential won’t necessarily be realised unless nurtured through targeted and tailored development experiences.

Targeting the effort

All employees should be covered by an agency’s performance management system. This can provide a rich picture of performance standards and strengths across the agency.

Using performance data in conjunction with assessments of potential, the agency can obtain robust information on which to base its succession management decision-making.

For example, performance management trends could be used to target various groups with particular and specific capability needs, or to cross- reference those high potential employees with a track record of performance whose development could be brought forward or accelerated.

Where the agency chooses to keep the formal performance management system separate from their approach to succession management, a snapshot of performance is still required in order to identify those most likely to become the leaders of the future.

Targeting the effort: performance/potential matrix

A performance/potential matrix can be used to provide a time-based snapshot of the performance and potential of the workforce. This matrix can help to guide your identification of those employees who could be considered for accelerated development in order to build capability for leadership roles in the short and longer-terms. It can also be used for different succession management contexts depending on how you have identified feeder groups for particular leadership roles. You may map different groups of employees by (say) level or function in order to assess potential for different types of leadership roles.

Using the matrix

Step 1:

Nominate the critical roles/capability sets relevant to your particular succession management analysis. Cross reference this analysis to the Retention Risk/Criticality Matrix to prioritise and target your efforts.

Step 2:

Use your assessments of potential for progression and actual performance to map where your employees sit within the matrix.

Once the mapping process is complete, you can prioritise those who will be considered for accelerated development. Remember: this is a snapshot. Assessments will change over time given changes in performance in a given year or potential affected by choice, particular life circumstances, and/or other factors. Employees may move between quadrants over time—the key is to base your assessment on as much objective information as possible in order to target your succession and development strategies effectively.

Those employees who ‘sit’ in the Star employees/HIPO quadrant are the primary candidates to be considered for accelerated development strategies—they are at the front of the ‘pipeline’ for progression to leadership roles. Their development will be targeted to encourage/enable them to achieve ‘ready now’ status for higher-level leadership positions relatively quickly, say within 12–18 months. Once ‘ready now’, they represent the bench strength for critical roles but must compete for promotion with other candidates (who may or may not have undertaken accelerated development opportunities) in competitive selection exercises.

A wider pool is available by considering those employees who fall to the right of the curved line running through boxes 2 and 3. Exercise judgement about initial inclusion/invitation to participate for those who sit on or near the line on the basis of your analysis, resourcing issues and other considerations.

Step 3:

Gauge the interest level of identified employees in progressing one or more levels within the organisation.

This may involve having a conversation with individual employees and giving them an opportunity to discuss their career aspirations and intentions. Those who choose not to participate at the current time may be temporarily re-reconsidered as LowPo by choice in the relevant quadrant for their performance level and reconsidered/reassessed at a future time. Remember it is important that those identified for accelerated development actually want to participate and that they are seeking future progression.

In any subsequent iteration, consider a wider pool which intersects through a wider segment of quadrants 2 and 3 and also through quadrant 4. Remember that the wider and deeper the pool of employees, the longer term the approach to developing capability and readiness for future leadership roles.

Performance/potential matrix
Potential Performance (Primary focus = 1, 2, 3 4.)


  1. The left hand column is not considered within a succession management decision-making process because performance is not meeting established expectations. This area may encompass between 0% and 5-10% of the workforce. The performance of these individuals is addressed through an established formal performance management system. Refer to Sharpening the focus: Managing performance in the APS for advice about the management of underperformance.
  2. Solid performers may account for roughly about 70% or more of the workforce. It is the largest performance group in the organisation.
  3. Star performers may account for up to roughly 20% of the workforce
  4. Solid and star performers with assessed low potential should be included in retention strategies as they provide a firm foundation for performance and represent a continuity and capability risk if lost to the organisation
  5. Not everyone in the organisation will or probably should end up within the upper-right quadrant of the matrix.
  6. The arrows on the matrix indicate desirable movement between quadrants over time.


  • assessed potential to operate multiple significant levels above current position and/or with broader scope; consistently displays strong leadership behaviours


  • May be new to role, or talented but derailed
  • Provide developmental feedback
  • Manager coaching to improve performance
  • Targeted learning and development
  • Aim to shift quadrant
  • Identify smaller role at current level
  • Formal PM process if not responding

3. Solid performer/HiPo

  • Actively develop for next level within 2–3 years
  • Coach for higher performance/results
  • Plan new challenges
  • Identify active contributor or leadership team role within challenging assignment requiring higher level contribution than current role
  • Target feedback around gap between current and higher level expectations

1. Star performer/HiPo

  • Proactively develop for next level within 12–18 months—needs the biggest stretch
  • Identify, agree and allocate challenging and visible stretch assignments/projects which require leadership and functioning at more complex level/scope
  • Ensure involvement with more senior executives and exposure to/involvement with strategic agenda
  • Plan career development experiences and lateral or higher moves
  • Coach and mentor for sustained growth and continued high performance
  • Additional retention focus
  • Possible link with quadrant 1 in Risk/Criticality Matrix


  • assessed potential to move up 1 significant level, displays required leadership behaviours
  • assessed potential to create value at current level, meet expanded range of responsibilities within current or other role at level


  • Provide developmental feedback
  • Manager coaching to improve performance
  • Targeted learning and development
  • Aim to shift quadrant
  • Identify smaller role at current level
  • Formal PM process if not responding

4. Solid performer/ ModPo

  • Dependable and reliable member of management structure
  • Continue leadership and management development
  • Identify projects or assignments with broader role than current level with degree of stretch
  • Provide other development opportunities to maintain motivation and to build proficiency within areas of capability
  • Identify appropriate developmental moves at level
  • Recognise good work
  • Continuity/capability risk: retention focus

2. Star performer/ ModPo

  • Actively develop for next level within 2–3 years
  • Identify active contributor role (possibly expert leader) within challenging assignment, requiring higher level contribution than current role
  • Coach to deliver higher order results
  • Provide other development opportunities to build proficiency within areas of capability
  • Plan new challenges
  • Target feedback around gap between current and higher level expectations


  • likelihood of advancement (insufficient aspiration, engagement or capacity), insufficient breadth or demonstration of leadership/technical capabilities to grow or move beyond current role. May include those on ‘pause’ by choice.
  • assessed as having difficulty fitting into and succeeding in role, minimal scope for progression within or above level


  • Encourage to improve performance
  • Discuss causes and implement corrective action
  • Formal PM process if not responding
  • Move to lesser role and/or exit strategy
  • Aim to shift quadrant

Solid performer/ LowPo

  • Recognise good work
  • Keep in place if not blocking pathway
  • Continuity risk: retention focus
  • Provide feedback and development opportunities to build proficiency within capability areas
  • Reconsider assessment of potential—room for growth? Or plateau-ed?
  • Includes ‘pause’ employees—individual preference or circumstances
  • Hold specialist in current role: motivate for continued performance

Star performer/ LowPo

  • Recognise great work
  • Motivate for present or similar role: build in challenges for continued engagement
  • Continuity/capability risk: retention focus
  • Use in coaching role for junior employees
  • Provide feedback and development opportunities to build proficiency within capability areas
  • Reconsider assessment of potential—room for growth? Or plateau-ed?
  • Includes ‘pause’ employees—individual preference or circumstances
  • Hold specialist in current

Below expectations

Not meeting targets and/or responsibilities, high degree direction required

Meeting expectations

Achieving expected targets moderate direction required

Sometimes exceeding

Exceeding expectations

Clearly and consistently exceeds targets, meets exceptional challenges, requires little/no direction

Key process area 3: Plan and do—design and implement development strategies

Some organisations specify a path of roles or experiences that an individual must undertake in order to develop the required breadth to undertake a senior level leadership role. Such paths incorporate a balance between strategic-level and operational management experience.

Each agency must make a decision about the scale of their approach, keeping in mind the need to attend to the development needs of all their employees, associated costs, and the risk and urgency they are facing with respect to leadership capability.

There are a number of approaches depending on the organisational context. For example, some agencies may use a generalised leadership development approach for all employees at a particular level, or for all employees in a particular segment of their workforce. Others may take a ‘hands up’ approach, seeking nomination from employees themselves.

Others may choose deliberate strategies to target and intensify the leadership development of those who have demonstrated high performance and assessed high potential. One such approach is outlined below.

Acceleration pools

Some organisations choose to identify a group or ‘pool’ of high potential employees and take a deliberate and structured approach to accelerating their development, by providing intensive development experiences, coaching and a wide range of professional experience8.

A key outcome of joining an acceleration pool is that the individual receives a comprehensive identification of development needs in a range of areas, such as organisational knowledge, required job challenges for progression, capabilities and potential weaknesses9. Following this, the organisation and individual must work together to ensure that appropriate development experiences are undertaken.

To avoid misconception, an acceleration pool strategy should be positioned within the workforce planning context, as part of the overall organisational development process.

The objective of an acceleration pool is not promotion but accelerated development10. Clear communication is needed that:

  • participation in accelerated development does not guarantee promotion
  • merit lists will not be developed or suggested as a result of participation in particular development activities.

An acceleration pool strategy is geared towards building a group of capable people who can compete for future leadership positions. However, those who have not participated in accelerated development activities should not be precluded from applying for promotion opportunities.

An acceleration pool requires clear parameters to operate effectively, and the following points should be considered:

  • How many pools? One or many? Targeted at different levels or roles? Some organisations use one pool to develop employees for senior level positions, and one for development into middle-level management positions.
  • How formal or informal an approach? Perceived ‘in/out’ status may impact on morale for those who are not included in an acceleration pool. Care must also be taken to ensure that participants do not unrealistically expect promotion when the development is geared towards ‘readiness’. On the reverse side, an informal approach may be seen as ‘tapping’ people on the shoulder and lacking transparency. These issues need to be handled carefully.
  • Whether ‘high potential’ status will be made clear to the individuals or not. Too much emphasis on this aspect can result in lower performance as high potential employees ‘relax’ in their roles.
  • How will participants be nominated? Everyone? Invite individual ‘hands up’ (supported by peer or manager recommendations)? Use external nominations (for example, from senior managers)?
  • Will performance management data be used in mapping performance and potential?
  • How comprehensive will assessments of potential be? Remember that the more measures used, the more objective the assessment.
  • What length of commitment and involvement will be required from participants? Some organisations require a three year commitment, others are within a broader range of between six months and five years, depending on scale.
  • How will appropriate development strategies be determined? High potential employees at an advanced stage in their career, and with a clearly established track record, may benefit from formal mentoring and coaching and executive retreats.
    Those just setting out with limited experience may benefit from specialised leadership development, cross-functional and rotational learning experiences, or high profile but well-supported project work which enables them to practice their developing skills in the ‘real world’.
  • What exit processes will be used and how will they be triggered? Will one-off situations, plateau-ed performance, changes in the agency’s anticipated needs, personal choice, or other factors be considered relevant circumstances? How will the discussion be handled and who will be involved?

Whilst the key steps apply across different contexts, the actual approach chosen must suit the culture and fit the maturity of the organisation or area.

For example, a relatively prescriptive process may work in a highly structured area familiar with succession management processes, whereas a more informal or incidental approach may enable successful initial implementation, with more formalised arrangements used further down the track.

In any scenario, the success of the succession management effort will be affected by the choice of approach.

Remember that not all participants should receive the same development as they have different development needs.

A key issue is how to accelerate experience—not just formal learning and development programmes—in order to realise a person’s potential for growth. This needs to include exposure to a breadth of development opportunities.

Effectively accelerating the development of leadership experience

Development strategies in this context must be carefully targeted and, to the maximum extent possible, individually tailored.

They also need to be documented—in a formal development plan or listed as a series of priorities which are periodically reviewed.

However, it is important to remember that development is about more than having a plan. Senior and line management involvement is required to maximise the effectiveness of any development strategy. In the succession management context, it could be argued that this involvement is even more fundamental to success, and of greater significance than having a plan or attending training programmes11.

Development priorities or plans can be based on results from 360° feedback, development centre results (for example, use of reports from the APS Career Development Assessment Centre), development discussions or other diagnostic tools.They can incorporate factors such as individual capability requirements, anticipated role challenges, or required organisational knowledge and understanding.

  • If using formal diagnostic tools, ensure clarity and keep elements of the process separate i.e. don’t use an assessment of potential to draw up a development plan.
  • Remember that an assessment of development needs is not an assessment of readiness or motivation.

What are the most effective development experiences?

On the job

Leadership development literature consistently emphasises that exposure to a range of challenging work-based experiences is the most effective way to build capability quickly. Such experiences provide capacity for multiple development objectives to be met at the same time. They enable objectives to be specified and agreed in advance12, so that people know what they’re expected to gain or achieve from a particular experience.


It is also important that acceleration strategies involve exposure to senior agency leaders and exposure to strategic issues and decision-making processes, as these factors have been cited as critical for accelerating the development of high potential employees13.


Other effective measures include special assignments and short-term cross-functional involvement (for example, through task forces), which broaden exposure to different and external perspectives.

Job rotation

In certain circumstances, job rotation to different parts of the agency, portfolio or industry sector may be used. Decisions in this area require collaboration with a number of key stakeholders.

Given an element of reluctance and risk sometimes associated with releasing high performing individuals to undertake projects, other roles or to go to other agencies, it may be useful to consider incorporating stretch experiences within a given role initially, to deepen and build proficiency and expand responsibilities at level. This allows an assessment of capabilities for subsequent roles.

Some agencies use high level acting arrangements to define their stretch assignments.

Small agencies may consider collaborating with other agencies, perhaps within their portfolio or with agencies doing similar work, to offer rotations and assignments to employees.

It is important to note that the most effective development occurs within the context of job performance, not as an isolated activity. Development actions need to be guided by the priorities mentioned earlier and should be focused and geared towards meeting specific capability requirements.


Work-based experiences can be supported by well targeted training (such as executive development programmes, formal skills training, online or university-based education where appropriate).


Outsourced executive coaching enables intensive one-on-one development for senior executives, as does the use of more senior managers outside of the direct reporting line as mentors.


Formalised feedback processes also provide powerful guidance.

Obviously, allocation of resources and management of costs occur within budgetary constraints and planning priorities, hence clear and well-targeted development strategies are necessary to maximise impact.

The key is to tailor high potential development, ensure it is real and work-based, supported and driven by line managers and the individuals concerned, and that progress and performance is maintained.

Effective stretch experiences include: managing large groups of people, launching new businesses, initiatives or programmes, making significant decisions, working on cross-functional teams, working in a customer/client role, or turning around a struggling business or project (see Corporate Leadership Council 2006, Guide— Creating a Succession Management Strategy).

Cross-functional rotations are effective because they broaden the knowledge base and network of professional contact, and increase problem solving and decision making skills.

Real learning occurs where task- force or high impact assignments are based on real and significant issues confronting the organisation (see Fulmer R 2005, ‘Keys to best practice succession management’, in Human Resources Magazine, 25 January).

The Commission can coordinate the purchase of coaching services for agencies through its Leadership, Learning and Development panel.

Key process area 4: Evaluate and measure outcomes

As with any people-related initiative, agencies must evaluate the success of their approach, and refine it as necessary to maximise the benefits of addressing their leadership continuity issues.

Evaluation measures need to directly address the specified objectives for the succession management effort. Agencies must avoid shying away from tracking progress, including their own performance in delivering on a stated commitment to this issue. Use of concrete data and measures provides a robust basis to refine, or significantly modify, the succession management approach.

It may take two or more ‘cycles’ for the approach to be fully embedded, but a start must be made.

Reaching the evaluation stage is a milestone to be celebrated. It is a significant step on the path to building leadership readiness and the agency’s capacity to continue to deliver on performance expectations in the longer term.

There is a range of factors that can be used to evaluate a succession management approach.

Quantitative measures include:

  • changes to bench strength expressed as a ratio or number in relation to key positions/areas
  • whether all key positions have a ‘bench’ or strategies in place to address succession issues
  • time taken to fill critical vacancies
  • the proportion of internal to external appointments in key areas
  • the number of employees assessed to have high potential, the number of new employees with high potential identified since the last review, the number downgraded since last review
  • changes to internal mobility rates as a result of work-based development experiences
  • number of stretch assignments which resulted in failure or dips in performance
  • retention rates for high potentials who have not achieved promotions
  • promotion rates.

Use of an acceleration pool necessarily involves some degree of tracking progress of individual participants, and some measurement of how individuals move through the pool and, over time, into leadership roles.

This does not jeopardise the achievement of merit in selection decisions, and should compromise neither transparency of the process nor individual privacy considerations.

Measures which involve a greater degree of qualitative assessment include:

  • assessing progress on the achievement of individual development plans
  • tracking the progress of individual participants
  • the degree and nature of involvement of current leaders or senior executives
  • impacts on the approach as a result of organisational changes
  • implementation of retention strategies for ‘ready now’ candidates who have not yet gained promotion
  • the agency’s performance in identifying development opportunities, filling them appropriately, and following-up on progress
  • participants’ experience of transition into new roles, based on the development they have received
  • the success of communication strategies to deal with any unanticipated impacts
  • realisation and communication of the results and the benefits
  • success of employee in new role.

1 Public Service Commissioner, State of the Service Report 2006–07, p147

2 Howe T 2004, Succession Planning and Management at http://www.charityvillage.com/cv/research/rhr12.html cites research from the Center for Creative Leadership that 66% of senior managers hired externally often fail within the first 18 months

3 Refer Management Advisory Committee, Organisational Renewal 2003 and Managing and Sustaining the APS Workforce 2005

4 Gaffney S 2005, ‘Career Development as a Retention and Succession Planning Tool’, in The Journal for Quality and Participation, Fall, Vol 28, No 3, p7

5 Corporate Leadership Council 2006, Realizing the Full Potential of Rising Talent—Capturing Returns on the Identification and Development of High-Potential Employees, Member Meeting Series, February, Sydney

6 Crown Content 2007, ‘High Potential Staff key to Business Success’, in Benchmarking HR—Best Practices in Human Resources and Employee Relations, Vol 14, No 298, May 4

7 See Paese M, Busine M & Watt B 2005, Maintaining Succession Management Momentum, Development Dimensions International, and, Wellins RS, Smith AB & Rogers RW 2006, The CEO’s guide to talent management—building a global leadership pipeline, Development Dimensions International

8 Taylor T & Bennett A 2002, ‘Strategic Development of Organisational Talent: the Use of Succession Management Approaches’, in Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 10(2), pp56-69

9 Byham WC 2002, ‘Headstart: A New Look at Succession Management’, in Ivey Business Journal, May/June

10 Busine M & Watt B 2005, ‘Succession Management: Trends and current practice’, in Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, Vol 43, No 2, pp225-237

11 Corporate Leadership Council 2006, op. cit

12 Busine M & Watt B 2005, op. cit

13 Taylor T & Bennett A 2002, op. cit

Last reviewed: 
12 June 2018