HR as “Career Coach” in Succession Planning: Can HR go too far?

Oversight of a thorough succession plan is viewed as a key responsibility of a well-established, strategic Human Resources (HR) function. But what exactly is the role of HR in establishing career plans as part of the organization’s succession planning, and is it possible for HR to overstep its bounds?

Whether you are maintaining a succession plan in your organization that is already established or guiding your organization through the steps of creating a succession plan from scratch, it is of utmost importance to set up roles and responsibilities that encourage accountability of all involved. This is especially true if formalized development plans are to be created as part of the career coaching and planning process.

Below I will share an example of what can happen when accountability of the succession plan is left up solely to the HR team and how to prevent this common pitfall.

The Situation
The Human Resources leadership team at Company X was a key partner to the c-suite in all aspects of its leadership and employee development strategy. So when the executive leadership team committed to establishing a company-wide approach to succession planning for the top leaders of the organization, it only made sense that HR would take a lead in this effort.

To this end, HR established itself as the lead on two primary aspects of succession planning: 1) the design and oversight of the succession planning documentation and process, and 2) the coaching of individual leaders on the establishment and maintenance of their individual career plans.

Given the coaching expertise of several of the HR executives, the team was already being tapped for this career management support informally. And given their role as gatekeepers of other vital and sensitive employee data, it made sense that all succession planning documentation, including the career plans themselves, be maintained by the HR department as well. On the surface, this seemed to be the ideal blend of two of the HR team’s strengths.

So what could go wrong?

The Outcome
HR managed many aspects of the project well. For the first time at an organization-wide level, they got the senior leadership team involved in the important dialogue about planning for the future and helped them to identify gaps in their talent pipeline. This led to a more targeted strategic approach to leadership and employee development and to a more targeted recruitment strategy that involved hiring for skills required for both present and future needs.

At an individual level, executives who were flagged as future successors of the organization’s most critical positions received the one-to-one coaching needed to create career plans that would enable them to prepare for future roles.

But there were some unintended consequences. It turned out that while the HR team had skilled coaches to provide coaching and consultation about each individual leader’s career plan, the leaders themselves began to rely too much on their respective “coaches” to create and maintain their career plans.

Because the career profiles and corresponding career plans of each successor were formally shared with the senior leadership team, a significant component of the HR team’s role involved maintaining each successor’s individual career plan.

Individual HR “coaches” found themselves getting calls and emails from executives they were coaching, requesting “updates” to their career plans and even asking that these coaches do some of the heavy lifting in thinking through FOR the executive what the content of the plan should be and then writing and updating the plan accordingly.

So what was the problem?

Arguably, HR professionals, especially those trained as professional coaches, have the skills to create effective career plans, right?


But as any professionally trained coach knows, accountability of the client (in this case, the executives being coached on their succession plan/career plan) is vital to each executive establishing his or her own commitment to the coaching outcomes.

Holding Executives Accountable
As you establish your HR team’s role in creating and maintaining the development planning documents, consider how the successor will stay accountable for his or her own career development. The following principles can help to keep  executives accountable for owning and driving their own career plans.
Human resources concept with manager in office touching white bo
Principle #1: HR owns the process/the executive (successor) owns the content
Just because HR owns the process for capturing the final documentation of succession plans and individual career plans does not mean he or she should create the content of the career plan for each executive. The boundaries can become blurred on this aspect of succession planning, especially if the career plans are intended to be “published” in some way for review by senior management.

To establish ownership on the part of each executive, it is important for HR to make clear not only their role in the data capture process, but also that responsibility for the content of the plan, including the writing and editing of the document, sits with the executive for whom the plan is created.

Whether the career planning template is hosted by an on-line tool or simply by a paper-based process to be submitted to HR via e-mail, make it clear that the executive owns the responsibility of creating and maintaining the content of the plan.

A good rule of thumb is never to be in a scenario in which the executive could complain that “HR hasn’t updated my plan” or “I am waiting for HR to signoff on my career plan.” By creating clear accountability throughout, this dependency on HR can be avoided.

Principle #2: Establish clear coaching boundaries
If members of the HR team are to provide coaching to support in the career planning of each executive, make clear the purpose of the coaching. This should be done both at the launch of the process and between individual coaches/executives.

Whether employing external coaches, leveraging internal coaches from your HR team, or utilizing a blend of the two, it is important to keep an ongoing dialogue with your pool of coaches to ensure that the boundary is being upheld and maintained throughout the process.

Many organizations chose to engage accredited external coaches to provide career coaching to these individual successors. This is because of the complexities involved in managing the boundaries of coaching clients when both the coach and the client are employed by the same organization. That said, it is our belief that exclusive reliance on external coaches results in a missed opportunity for leveraging the strengths of your internal HR team (see Principle Three below).

Principle #3: Invest in your internal coaches
Coaches have the role of supporting each successor in career planning, but likewise, it is also important to ensure that the coaches themselves are at their best when coaching.

Where possible, ensure that internal coaches have the opportunity for formal training as coaches. Formal training will not only professionalize your internal coaches’ approach to the task, but it will also help the coaches to stay self-aware as they navigate the complexities of being a coach in the same organization where they work every day.

Not least, it is important to acknowledge these challenges and to provide members of the internal HR team who will be offering the coaching with the support to manage these challenges, including guidelines necessary for maintaining an agreed level of confidentiality and other professional boundaries.

By establishing a clear process for both data capture/management and coaching during succession planning, as well as clarifying the boundaries and investing in the skills of internal (HR) coaches, HR teams have an opportunity to add real value to the succession planning process and outcomes. This positions HR as a true partner to the business during organizational succession planning and ensures the accountability of the business in the process.

Hilgart is passionate about advancing the role that HR teams play as partners and coaches to the business. To discuss advancing the contribution of your own HR team, or to share your own success story with us, please contact us at

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