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Succession Planning: Building Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into Your Company’s Leadership Pipeline

What you need to do to ensure the advancement of next-gen women leaders

succession planning image
Photo courtesy of LinkedIn Sales Navigator

Succession planning has evolved over the years. Instead of an extremely narrow focus on one employee to fill a vacant key position, the strategy has changed to define the competencies required for that position and then developing promising employees. One of the benefits of this broader approach is that it allows succession plans that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Intelligent succession planning combats the tendency for employees to job hop. Cultivating corporate talent and rewarding workers with advancements within the company increases retention, which in turn promotes the overall stability of the organization.

Read more: Real Work-Life Balance for Women Is Possible, But Jobs Have to Change

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is a deliberate corporate strategy to replace key people in a company. The vacant spot can be due to anything from a planned sabbatical or retirement to a sudden medical emergency. However it occurs, it creates a leadership vacuum that can destabilize a business.

To avoid that vacuum, organizations must have a leadership pipeline in place, which will allow the right people to fill vacancies in the C-suite. That depth of employee talent is called “bench strength.” Years ago, Russell Glass, CEO at on-demand mental health company Ginger, talked about why bench strength in business is so critical.

“In business, unexpected occurrences happen all the time—from critical employees choosing to leave the organization, to market shifts and family or team members falling ill,” he wrote in a VentureBeat article. “It is crucial that a company have people within their organization who can take the reins in any situation, so they can ensure continuity and effectiveness. Additionally, when a business knows that it has a deep bench, it is more confident in making big bets and innovating because management can rest assured that the team understands opportunities that arise and will execute on them effectively.”

Read more: The Origins of Sexism & Why It’s Just as Toxic as Ever

What about women in leadership positions?

We may have a woman vice president, but we still have a long way to go in the business world before we see diversity, equity, and inclusion in leadership roles. According to a 2021 CEO study by the Women Business Collaborative, 8.2% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women. 

Read more: How to Become a CEO: Ladder-Climbing from University to C-Suite

The issue is not lack of access to female talent, Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, board director, C-suite advisor, and leadership strategist, tells InHerSight. “What is an issue is access to female talent in leadership,” Hagemann explains. “The higher you go up the ladder, the fewer women you will see. The number drops to 25 percent in C-suite jobs and around 7 percent in CEO positions.”


Because women often “pull back or even step out of the workforce at least for a time when they have children,” Hagemann says. “The bigger jobs take so much time that many women simply opt not to pursue them. Those who either do not have children or choose to pursue the higher-level jobs in spite of the time commitment will still be met with obstacle after obstacle with gender discrimination likely to be one of them.”

Read more: Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference in the Workplace?

How can you make succession planning successful?

Dr. Janvi Patel, lawyer and equality activist, tells InHerSight that we already have the pipeline of college-educated women. “For most industries and professions, the issue then is less about getting female college grads to join their organization, but about developing and retaining the pipeline after a few levels of seniority,” she explains. “To be able to fix the issue in each organization/profession, it takes listening to women and understanding their drive and needs, but also understanding data.”

If your organization treats its employees in the same way it does its customers and clients, then succession planning will be successful.

Read more: The 4 Things Working Women Want Most from Their Employers

“Once you start building a picture of what is happening on the ground and you have an idea of what good corporate succession planning looks like, you can start creating the road map,” says Patel. “Again, this is not complicated, it is literally what businesses do—map out what consumers (employees) need and what service (structure) the business can provide.”

The same approach can be taken whether you’re looking at gender, race, age, color, sexual orientation, or any other factor, which might include employees who are single parents or parents of children with health challenges, or employees who themselves have physical disabilities or mental health issues.

Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Change in the Workplace

How do you ensure your plan is gender neutral and inclusive?

Companies need to be proactive and systematic about ensuring their succession planning is truly inclusionary, diversified, equitable. Hagemann says that having a stated corporate culture that supports diversity and policies such as recruiting quotas will drive a gender-neutral and inclusive workforce.

Read more: Why Women View Your Benefits Differently Than Men Do

Inclusive family-friendly policies such as paid parental and sick leave are some of the easiest to implement, Patel notes. “However, it is not just about family-friendly policies; it is also about the organization’s structure and culture—the true essence and foundation of a business.

“Often it is about addressing the archaic operating models of corporates and the unconscious biases within organizations that hinder the progression of next-gen women leaders. For example, in professional services, the value proposition of billable hours that guides all progression within organizations hinders the progression of women. Presentism, nepotism, and aggressive risk-taking are all cultures that prevent corporations from growing a diverse, inclusive pipeline.”

Read more: How to Meet Gender Representation Goals, According to a Company That’s Done It 

An example of corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion

Management consulting firm Kearney has a great program, “Diversity networks,” which shows how diversity, equity, and inclusion can become part of a company’s identity and practice. 

The organization has one network each for women, LGBTQIA+, Black, Latino and Hispanic, and East Asian. Within these networks, colleagues can obtain support through mentoring and professional development. Focusing on the specific needs of each cohort, Kearney delivers targeted programs and actions. 

The women’s network, for example, increases the firm’s ability to track and recruit top women candidates at all levels and then retain and advance them. To identify and engage Black talent, Kearney partners with several diversity organizations and recruits across campuses, in addition to hosting consulting boot camps for undergrads and pre-MBA students.

Read more: Tokenism: What It Is & How It Affects Our Workplaces

It starts at the top

It doesn’t take long to develop a pipeline of next-generation women leaders, and it certainly isn’t impossible. What’s needed, however, is action from the top.

Hagemann uses Unilever as an example. When Paul Polman became CEO of the century-old company with 155,000 employees, he insisted on gender equality. Within six years, women comprised one-half of the board of directors, plus 50 percent of senior executive positions were held by women. 

“Relatively speaking,” Hagemann notes, “this was a fast change at the top and an indicator that regardless of how old or large your company is, you can change it if you choose to. It will take work, ruffling some feathers and it will take action, but it can be done and it can be done demonstrating diplomacy and goodwill in the process.”

About our sources

Visionary leadership expert Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of EDA, Inc., a top-of-the house human capital firm specializing in C-Suite Coaching, Succession Planning, Design of Custom

Executive Development programs and preparing high potentials to step into senior leadership roles. EDA has a 38-year history of working with leading organizations to develop their executives and make culture visible through their proprietary CultureTech platform called SurveySaurus®.

Hagemann’s personal leadership journey, combined with sound business principles and expertise in leadership strategy, has led her to serve as a speaker, coach, and trusted advisor to some of the most respected leaders and organizations in the world. Author of Leading with Vision: The Leader's Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce, Bonnie has leadership courses on LinkedIn Learning.

Dr. Janvi Patel, awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Law in the U.K., is also cofounder of the non-profit Support SEND Kids and FreePeriods and is an advisory board member at Equality Now and at Children of War Foundation, an investment committee member for venture capital fund for female founders ALIAVIA.

Previously Patel, as Chairwoman and Cofounder of Halebury, spearheaded operational, structural, and cultural change within the legal services profession through a visionary and unique business model. In 2018 Halebury was acquired by Elevate and Janvi became the Vice President and Co-Head of Elevate’s global flexible legal resourcing solution, which provides experienced legal professionals to both Fortune 500 companies and global law firms. Janvi completed her exit from Elevate in early 2020 and is now focusing on nonprofit activities as well as working on a number of writing and media projects. A strong supporter and advocate for women’s rights at all levels, she is a regular speaker at industry and business forums, as well as for the next generation via organizations such as Speakers for Schools.

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