(Mike Shapiro/For Capital Business)

Recently, I was watching one of my favorite teams, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, in an NCAA March Madness game. For years, I have enjoyed watching the tremendous leadership exhibited by Pat Summitt as the team’s head coach. This year was different, though, because Pat delegated some of her duties to Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick after being diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Although I was disappointed I didn’t get to hear Pat’s comments about the game or see the “glare and stare” she can give to players, refs and the other side’s coaches, I was also struck by her ability to still lead a spectacular team while sharing responsibilities with another very capable coach.

In our organizations today, how often is that the case? How many times have leaders stepped down from key jobs and the firm was left in the lurch because no one ready to take the helm?

The need to groom successors is likely to grow only more urgent in the next five years as more and more C-level executives retire from the workforce.

Good succession planning means making sure the right people, with the right skills, are in the right place at the right time. Effective planning is critical to a firm’s long-term health, whether we are talking about a family business, a mid-size company or a very large organization.

In assessing possible candidates, several qualities that should be evaluated. Future leaders typically need:

Strategic, global thinking and planning skills.

Strong focus on delivering results.

Customer focus (both internal and external customers).

Concern for people, talent engagement and retention.

Trustworthiness, integrity and personal accountability.

Where do these future leaders come from? They need to be groomed from within the firm or hired externally. Some companies place an emphasis on filling key position with external candidates in order to bring in people with fresh perspectives. To do this, firms need strong recruitment and selection systems to make sure they are attracting the best talent for their industry.

Other firms place a strong emphasis on internal promotions for succession planning. For example, at General Mills, more than 90 percent of management promotions are internal, based on a report by Fortune magazine for its 2011 feature, Top 25 Companies for Leaders. Similarly, PepsiCo creates 10-year growth plans for individuals who are thought to have C-suite potential. At Unilever, all 100 top leaders submit two-page career plans to the chief executive. And at Procter & Gamble, every CEO started at the entry level and moved up from there.

In order to have internal candidates ready to assume leadership roles, a firm needs to have good systems in place to recognize potential talent and develop it. Mentoring can play an important role in helping employees learn the ropes and develop the skills needed to move up. In addition, firms can use internal leadership programs, developmental assignments, rotational assignments, and internal coaches to help develop their high potentials.

Even future CEOs can gain assistance from mentors or executive coaches. In fact, it is critical for higher-up leaders to make sure they are getting the guidance they need.

You can’t just suggest that managers mentor or groom talent — you have to make this a mandate from the top down. At General Electric, this is considered such a high priority that CEO Jeff Immelt devotes about 40 percent of his time to leadership development. Similarly, at Eli Lilly, half of the variable compensation for senior executives is influenced by mentoring skills and other leadership behaviors.

The consequences of not grooming a successor are great: Companies can suffer major disruptions of work, loss of consumer confidence or loss of internal talent. Make sure your firm has evaluated who’s next in line and what they need to do to get ready.

Joyce E. A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership and career management. She can be reached at jrussell@rhsmith.umd.edu.