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Succession Planning: Leaving a Legacy for the Future

As a nurse leader, there comes a time when one must move on to other adventures. In 2017, I retired from an organization as a nurse leader and nursing faculty member after 14 years. Albeit one is reticent and not 100% ready to move on, change is good, and it was time. During my tenure, I had the honor of identifying top talent, hiring, and mentoring exceptional nurse leaders at both the micro-system (unit) and macro-system (executive) levels. I was confident those leaders would continue to provide outstanding leadership and assume greater responsibility after my departure. The legacy I am most proud of is those leaders have now taken higher-level positions to include mine within the organization. The purpose of this discussion is to share my journey of succession planning during my over 30-year nurse leader career and why it is so essential for the future of nursing.

What is succession planning?

A recent concept analysis of succession planning using Walker and Avant’s methodological approach identified five attributes of succession planning: organizational support and culture, attitude, commitment, and resources (Phillips, 2020). According to Phillips, antecedents included: strategic planning, identification of potential individuals, leadership development, mentoring programs, and identification of leadership competencies. The definition of succession planning is a proactive strategy involving the purposeful identification, assessment, and development of individuals by educating and mentoring future leadership positions and establishing leadership continuity within an institution. I wish to discuss the attributes and antecedents from my perspective and why I believe this definition of succession is vital to nursing leadership.

Why is leadership succession planning important?

Historically, strong clinicians have are placed into leadership roles. Unfortunately, many did not succeed due to inadequate training resulting in burnout, frustration, and turnover (Selig, in press). I have observed highly competent or expert clinicians placed in leadership roles with a lack of leadership experience or training. The transition from a highly qualified or expert clinician to a novice leader is difficult. Leading clinical care versus leading a team, unit, or organization requires different competencies, knowledge, skills, and attitudes. The thought of losing friends, working long hours, 24/7 responsibility, and being the go-to person for all unit issues can be overwhelming (Selig, in press). I recall my first leadership role and experiencing these same challenges. Luckily, the leadership training received as a military nurse helped make the transition easier. It did not take me long to appreciate the value of succession planning.

Strategic planning

Let's face the facts! Leaders come and go within an organization. A Nurse Executive's tenure is 3-5 years on average at one facility; however, rare cases exist where a nurse executive's tenure can last for decades. Whether at the nurse executive level or unit level, leadership change is inevitable. Change is difficult, and leadership turnover can be challenging. What struck me over the years was observing how often chaos occurred when a leader left. Generally, the rumor mill went wild about whom the next person to take over would be. The ill-prepared candidate appeared to be promoted prematurely, causing significant anxiety and confusion within the healthcare team. However, there were instances when the transition went smoothly and seamlessly. A common theme I noticed when, indeed, the change from one leader to another occurred smoothly was in organizations with a proactive strategy to identify, assess, and develop future leaders for succession. Organizations that create a positive culture, attitude, commitment, and leadership resources fared better in transitioning in leadership. I soon learned this, and with the advice from my mentors, succession planning became part of my strategic planning.

Putting the right team together

Early in my leadership career, forming a diverse team of talented individuals was vital to be a successful leader. One of my mentors shared, "as a leader, you are only as good as the team you surround yourself with," and soon I realized this was excellent advice. My first leadership position included 12 vacant interim leadership positions to fill. As a leader with introversion, intuition, thinking, and judging (INTJ) tendencies per the Myers-Briggs, I could not afford to surround myself with fellow introverts and INTJ's (Wisser & Massey, 2019). However, this is one piece of choosing your team. Over the years, I've learned having as many of 16 different Myers-Briggs personality types on your team can positively affect the team's success. I can't stress enough self-assessment of your leadership tendencies allows you to structure a diverse and influential group of staff and leaders. Including other assessment tools, behavioral interview techniques, staff in panel interviews, and incorporating leadership development opportunities helped me put together highly reliable and diverse unit teams and leaders to lead my areas.

Identifying and assessing future leaders

There is nothing more exciting to me than to observe and identify members of the team at all levels who demonstrate the personality, competencies, knowledge, skills, and attitudes to become a leader. Leading is rather tricky, and good leaders must evolve with proper mentoring, education, increased levels of responsibility, and demonstrated successful outcomes. Whether at the unit charge nurse, nurse manager, or higher-level nurse executive roles, one should observe for future leaders among your teams. I hired leaders who were caring, compassionate, patient-centered, and demonstrated evidence-based practice. Other attributes included focusing on safety, quality improvement, teamwork, and collaboration. Leaders who create a healing environment for our patients and the inter-professional team members were preferred, along with strong communication skills and the ability to support a Just Culture. Being proactive versus reactive was important. The ability to look at all sides of a situation, reach out to others, and choose wisely are valuable traits; this is not an exhaustive list, but include many of my initial considerations. Selecting and training the right leader is one of the most critical decisions and investments a nurse executive can make.

Leadership development

Once you choose future leaders wisely, there is the process of their development. How do you do this? I am a strong advocate of baccalaureate nursing residencies to assist the new graduate transition from the classroom to the bedside. Internships are valuable avenues to develop future leaders and streamlining the pipeline of applicants for vacant leadership positions (Selig, in press). In my last role, we were fortunate to have five nursing schools with master's programs focusing on leadership. Also, there were plenty of applicants to our student programs and others due to our reputation. We had ample opportunity to observe and hire to fill vacancies. Continuing education programs focused on leadership helped our leaders perform better. Providing a time-frame, content, activities, courses, and networking opportunities are invaluable in developing new leaders at all levels of experience. Future leadership programs must integrate knowledge, skills, abilities, and judgment through formal, informal, and reflective learning experiences.

Mentoring programs

I can't express enough the value of mentoring. Fortunately, I had five individuals who mentored me throughout my career. All five were excellent leaders who helped me address many issues I faced and guided me throughout my career. At times we did not agree, but each had the uncanny ability, to be honest with me and guide me along a different path. There is a plethora of evidence supporting mentoring in nursing for both clinical and administrative roles. Organizations with robust mentoring programs are successful in developing future leaders. During my later part of my career, I was very fortunate to work in an organization supporting mentoring. I had learned earlier in my career the value of mentors, and my role as a mentor. Every semester my leadership team and I had graduate leadership student interns. Many of these turned into long term mentor opportunities.

Leadership competencies

Competency is an expected performance level that integrates knowledge, skills, abilities, and judgment (ANA, 2018). Becoming a competent leader is so vital to one's success as a leader. I advocate the use of the American Nurses Association ANA Leadership Competency Model (ANA, 2018). The ANA model aims to build, enhance, and strengthen nurses' leadership and those working or serving the nursing profession. They reflect the nurse profession's foundational elements and incorporate evidence-based instructional design, leadership theories, and research. We all must demonstrate professional competence throughout our careers. I found the standards of professional performance dovetailed with leadership competencies. As a leader, collaboration, communication, education, environmental health, ethics, evidence-based practice/leadership, professional practice evaluation, quality of clinical practice, and resource utilization are essential both as a clinical nurse and as a nurse leader. If we are to identify and develop future leaders in nursing who can address the complexities of leading in the 21st century. We must ensure they are competent to meet the challenge.


Leading is not easy, and as one of my mentors shared, "as a leader, you are only as good as the team you surround yourself with." I soon realized this was sound advice. Sittler’s (2019, p. 109) statement, “Healthcare today is a complex and complicated arena," places an enormous burden upon nurse leaders to attain and retain talent from the bedside to the leader level. The development of nurse leaders is a challenge for all nurse leaders. Early in my leadership career, I learned the value of succession planning and its antecedents identified by the Phillips (2020) concept analysis: strategic planning, identification of potential individuals, leadership development, mentoring programs, and identification of leadership competencies. To identify and retain highly effective leaders, I think it is essential to have an effective succession plan. I am very proud to observe the leadership team at all levels within the organization, where I left is now composed of leaders I had identified, recruited, mentored, and promoted.


ANA (2018) ANA Competency Model. American Nurses Association.

Phillips, L.K. (2020). Concept analysis: Succession planning. Nursing Forum. 27 July 2020.

Selig, B. (in press). Nurse manager interns: A proactive approach to developing leadership talent and solidifying succession planning. Nurse Leader

Sittler, L.F. (2019). The effect on nursing leadership roles with succession planning for the next generation of millennial nurses. 2019 - 1(3) OAJBS. ID.000127. DOI: 10.38125/OAJBS.000127

Wisser, K.Z. & Massey, R.L. (2019). Mastering your distinctive strengths as an introverted nurse leader. Nursing Administration Quarterly. 43(2):123-129, April/June.


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