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How F5 Revamped their Succession Planning

F5 Networks is a global technology company with a mission to power and protect applications around the world. F5 has been undergoing tremendous transformation in recent years: in our business model, our product portfolio, our culture, and our leadership. These changes create a need and opportunity to innovate and challenge HR to design and build forward-looking solutions which enable the short- and long-term success of F5.  

Business challenge

F5 has strong leadership, which has been able to effectively lead us in our transformations and progress. It is imperative that we continue to have strong leadership and that we plan for the future of our leadership team.  Historically, little succession planning was in place. Two years ago, traditional succession planning was implemented, with relatively little investment and commitment by leadership, leading to the questions of “why?” and “to truly make a difference, what should succession planning be?”. To answer these questions, F5 started with the base question of “why do we want to do succession planning?”, which pointed to the desired outcomes of:

  • Identify internal talent to develop and intentionally plan their development
  • Identify external talent with whom to build relationships
  • Expand the diversity of talent moving toward and into leadership
  • Ultimately, create a level of information and definition to ensure plans are realistic and increase likelihood of use

This case study represents one of the four finalist submissions for phase one of i4cp's 2021 Next Practice Awards. View other Next Practice Award case studies.

Solution – Scope & Innovation

In 2020, a decision was made to shift from ‘succession planning’ to ‘progression planning’ to connate a stronger focus on progressing talent. After research into the current state of succession planning across industries and introspection of why succession planning often fails, some key principles were defined:

  • Plans should accurately reflect the needs of the role, with a future-focused lens.
    • Implication: There is no need to define the “table stakes” aspects that we would expect any leader of the targeted level to have. Rather, effort should be applied to defining what really differentiates candidates for the position. For example, the Chief People Officer is the face of the employer brand for the company. Any candidate needs to be able to carry that brand internally and externally.
    • Implication: Not all roles will be backfilled in their current state. Rather, some roles will be combined with other positions or broken into multiple roles. Plans should reflect this and should be created in alignment with the reality of the intentions to avoid creating plans which have no real value.
  • Successors are not on a timer; that is, there is no reason to expect people to be ready within specified timelines such as “ready in 1-2 years”. Without intentional development, it could take much longer.  With intentional development, it could happen much sooner. 
    • Implication: Rather than placing potential successors into a traditional grid of ready now, ready 1-2 years, ready 2-4 years, etc., consider them on a line of relative readiness.  Those most ready appear farthest left; those more distant (but still within a handful of years to keep it realistic) are further right.
    • Implication: Rather than simply naming potential successors, also articulate their strengths and experiences which demonstrate readiness for the position and capture development plans for further building their readiness. 
  • Diversity in plans is critical; and plans need to remain realistic.
    • Implication: We must grow our diverse talent. Unfortunately, we do not always have talent who are likely successors within the next handful of years who are diverse. This requires a harder look at talent: looking across organizations for talent, looking deeper into the organization to identify future talent who are diverse, and looking externally. Plans must reflect this.

These principles led us to a solution which asks each leaders to partner with their HRBP, the Talent Acquisition leader, and the D&I leader to create a progression plan which includes:

  • Differentiating Role Characteristics: This is not about the ‘table stakes’ of leadership, but rather factors which are specific to that role into the future, which help to define needed capabilities. For example, below are a few differentiating characteristics of the Chief Technical Officer role:
    • Drives technical vision and strategy through own team and through influence other F5 leaders
    • Evolve the technical breadth and depth of the organization
    • Ability to drive recognition of F5 as a technical innovator/leader
    • Able to articulate company strategy/vision externally with market and financial analysts
  • Key Experiences & Development for Successors: This is an articulation of the types of experience and learnings which are most useful in preparing someone to take on this role, often looking to the incumbent’s own experience prior to taking on the role. Again, looking at the CTO role as an example, below are some examples of developmental experiences for this role:
    • Experience leading technology strategy for a billion-dollar+ business
    • Experience driving Board-level strategy discussion around M&A and technology roadmap
    • Experience working directly with CIOs and CEOs, as well as industry-level influence through public engagement
    • Engineering experience leading development organizations at scale, including creation of common architecture
  • Successors: As described earlier, potential successors are identified, focusing on those expected to be ready within a few years. For each, comments are captured about their strengths, development areas, experiences they have had that lend themselves to the role of interest, and the development plan to fill potential gaps. These development experiences are directly tied as much as possible to the Key Experiences and Development described above. 

Notably, in cases where there is not a ‘ready now’ successor for a role, progression plans specifically note “no internal ready now – would need to hire from outside” and then list potential interim leaders. Interim leaders may be individuals on the succession plan but are often peers of the current incumbent. This allows for the organization to be prepared in cases where there may not be an internal candidate for the position and time is needed to hire someone from outside the organization. 

  • Talent to grow long-term: In addition to talent who may be within a few years of readiness for the position of interest, we also want leaders to identify talent deeper within the organization for development. These individuals are typically 2-3 levels below the incumbent, needing more significant development focus in order to be ready for this level of leadership. Leaders are required to include diverse talent on this list to ensure we are building a diverse set of individuals toward leadership roles. 
  • External candidates: Finally, in partnership with the Talent Acquisition leader, potential external candidates are identified. Leaders are asked to build relationships with these individuals for potential proactive hiring and growth within the org and to ensure a relationship is already in place if the need arises to fill the leadership role from outside of the organization.

The template used is captured in the screenshot below:

Executive Progression

At present, we use this progression planning process for our entire executive leadership team, including CEO, as well as for a number of other VP and SVP roles. This year we held a joint meeting of the Executive Leadership Team to discuss progression plans for the team, creating further alignment on potential successors and development plans for this talent. Additionally, the i4cp Bias Audit was used to improve our focus on diversity and inclusion within progression planning.

Results & Impact

Metrics are an important aspect of measuring the impact and evolution of progression planning over time.  At F5, we have used our progression planning metrics to track:

  • Changes in successors year-over-year. We use this to examine who was added or removed, to learn from the changes, including looking at how to continue to make the plans realistic and drive diversity.
  • The number of diverse individuals among successors, talent to develop long-term, and potential external successors. By tracking this over time across these three categories, we ensure we continue to place focus on diversity and put accountability on executives develop a diverse pipeline.
  • Themes within Key Development and Experiences for Successors to inform our leadership development efforts and provide leadership with additional ideas and accountability for developing talent. 

After completing our second year with this new approach, initial metrics point to success in elevating our planning and focus on succession. Additionally, recent conversation with the Talent and Compensation Committee for the F5 Board of Directors – where all plans for the CEO and his directs were shared – affirms this. Feedback from that group was very favorable and suggests that the F5 approach is very innovative and advanced.


The ultimate success of this approach will be determined over time as we look at whether we truly increase diversity in our leadership levels through succession and development and through whether these plans are used to fill vacated roles. This said, while we are continuing to evolve our use progression planning (see table below for our evolution over time), we are seeing strong indicators of success and positive response to the approach thus far. We have remained focused on the outcomes we identified at the beginning of this work and strive to remain true to the principles we outlined. 

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