Passing The Baton — Who Will Take It Next?

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Paula M. Singer, PhD and Laura Francisco
Originally published in IPMA HR News, September 2010

Too often succession planning efforts focus only on the process: the presentations, forms, charts, and checklists. Though these are all important, remember that they are only precursors to what succession planning is really about: development. Effective succession planning requires that you put the plans in place and then execute them diligently. Get each successor the development opportunities and experiences that he or she needs. And don’t stop at opportunities either. You have to be sure to provide the right support – external training, a mentor, a coach – to be sure the successor is acquiring the skills to succeed in the new role. This article will discuss how local governments can develop and implement successful plans for succession planning, just as they need them most!

Succession Planning is Just Filling Vacancies, Right?
No! According to William Rothwell in Effective Succession Planning, comprehensive succession management must integrate talent management with organizational strategic planning. It must anticipate change, not just serve as “replacement planning” or even filling empty positions as they become empty. Local government must focus on a strategy that places the right people in the right place at the right times to do the right things (the work you need to be accomplished to achieve your strategic goals).

Census and other demographics data tells us there are 83 million baby boomers in America today, representing a huge increase in the 55-and-older population. There will be over 90 million in this same group by 2025. Who will fill the gaps when these employees leave the workforce? Maybe not who you think. In this same timeframe, demographics show that the 35-44 year old group (probably who you are thinking of as your leadership pool) will decline by 15%, and 64 million people (40% of the workforce) would be eligible for retirement. Local governments must accelerate their planning and consideration of how they will deal with this reality. According to an HR Director in a public sector organization in Washington state, “Tumbleweeds will be blowing through this place if we don’t do something!” In another public sector organization we’ve worked with in Maryland with 210 employees, retirements are increasing, with 11 staff members retiring by the end of this fiscal year and an additional 59 staff currently eligible for full retirement.

“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” John F. Kennedy

In other words, succession
planning is not a last minute effort.  What does turnover look like at your organization?

When you have a job vacancy:

  • Are your staff ready and willing to apply for promotion?
  • Do you have to go outside to fill leadership positions?What is the cost to your local government?
  • Does it take too long to fill positions?
  • Do managers and staff complain that decisions about promotion or transfer are made on criteria other than best qualifications?
  • Is critical turnover high?
  • Are key positions filled – but with less than full confidence?
  • What percentage of your leaders would be selected if they were applying today for their current positions?
  • Does your organization have the bench strength to staff its strategic and other plans for the changes that will come in the next 5 to 10 years?
  • How long would it take to replace a key member of your workforce who resigned, retired or died?

Succession planning provides an ongoing source of in-house replacements and helps you retain key talent. It helps you prepare individual employees for future challenges and accelerates their development by providing challenging, growth-oriented and rewarding career opportunities. It also provides for critical and timely knowledge transfer – we all know the void of institutional knowledge left in the wake of the sudden retirement or untimely departure of a key staff person.  Succession planning helps you avoid lost productivity by addressing the new person’s learning curve prior to the vacancy. Finally, it can help you control costs, as developing internal talent is far less expensive than hiring, training, orienting and educating from the outside. It’s common knowledge that vacancy costs – the dollars necessary to hire, train, and prepare a new employee, combined with the lost productivity and possibly the acting pay you must pay when the person leaves – can add up to 1 ½ – 2 times the actual salary and benefits costs of the original position. Succession planning can help you avoid that loss of knowledge, not to mention the gaps when work is not done and priorities are not met.

So What Does it Take?
Succession planning requires the following ingredients for success:

  • Commitment from top management
  • A vision of where your local government is heading and what it will need to make it happen
  • An accurate understanding of the existing workforce
  • Objectivity – about employees and positions
  • An open mind, including the ability to find hidden talents
  • A solid plan and strong organization structure
  • Manager ownership (not just HR)
  • Well-coordinated training and development program
  • On-going attention

Following is a brief outline of a process to follow when developing an effective succession planning effort.

First, review your strategy. What needs are you trying to meet? The challenge is responding to these needs with the staff you have now, can develop, or can acquire. What is your “best guess” of how the local government will be functioning in 1 to 5 years, based on strategic or other planning? Describe the organization’s situation, structure, budget situation, demographics, citizen needs, technology, etc. Next, identify your critical positions. Do you have any positions that would stop a critical task from occurring if the incumbent were to leave? Would the government suffer in the absence of this function occurring? Think about the organization’s leadership positions, including executives, department heads and assistant department heads. Depending on the size of the organization, consider taking the analysis of leadership positions further. For each leadership/management position, ask: “What does this function uniquely contribute to the government’s current mission? If the job were vacant, would the function still operate effectively and efficiently?” If the answer to the first question is yes (in terms of outcomes tied to the organization’s strategic plan), then you are looking at a key position. Don’t forget about future projects: These positions would be based on where your government or agency is heading in the future from a strategic standpoint. It may include a Director of Diversity where one does not exist or a Coordinator of Innovation or Strategic Initiatives when such a focus is desired.

Consider the potential consequences and/or uproar from a vacancy: Are there any positions where upheaval would occur or consequences (decisions not made, citizen complaints not satisfied, services not running, computers not started, equipment/supplies not ordered) would be severe if the position were vacant? What other mission critical positions exist in your organization? How difficult would it be to fill these positions? These are other potentially key positions.

As you go through the above process, you will also need to think about this: Who are the key people we want to develop and nurture for the future? Why was each mentioned? Do the high-potential employees in your department believe they have a career path? What do you-and they-see as their future here? Remember that different individuals–with different skills, experiences, and goals-may want their careers to take different paths. It may be typical for an Assistant Department Head in the Public Works Department to come from the ranks of Civil Engineers, but that doesn’t mean that every Engineer wants to (or should!) become a Department Head.  Nor does it mean that a great Communications Director can’t come from the ranks of the IT or Parks and Recreation Departments-or from somewhere else that might be unexpected.  Career paths can, and should, be individualized rather than prescribed.

Define the competencies – clusters of behavior, knowledge, technical skills and motivations important to job success – necessary for each key position identified. Competencies must be clearly defined and reflect your organization’s values and be linked to the strategic plan and goals. They must also be linked into your performance management plan, and again, clearly defined, so that they can be understood and assessed and show employees how their jobs support the organization’s goals. This process will also help you target your training needs.

Now that You Have a Plan in Place:

You will need to identify short- and long-term vacancies. For each position, ask the following questions:

  • Who’s in the position now? When might they leave?
  • What are the career goals of this person?
  • Is anyone ready to fill it?
  • Is the work critical? (see above)
  • Could the job be split? Outsourced?

As you being to identify talent for these vacancies, have your supervisors and managers rate employees (either all in their department or those identified to be high potential) against various factors leading to success at your organization, including the skills, values, competencies, and abilities that are felt to be correlated with future success at the next level of responsibility. These can include integrity, customer service orientation, communication, teamwork, visionary leadership and other items of focus in your organization. Then evaluate the development needed to get these people to that point. The real job becomes then filling in those gaps that get the potential candidates from point A to point B.

When creating development plans, remember that there are various components that foster successful career growth – it’s not all classroom learning. In fact, 70% of development should be experiential – that is, allowing the person to participate in stretch assignments, job shadowing, job rotation or swaps, on-the-job training, serving on task forces, or action learning. Relationship-based learning, such as mentoring, coaching and feedback should also be included in addition to traditional classroom or distance-learning and self-directed learning and research. Activities away from work, such as volunteer work, community service and participation in professional organizations is also important for development.

As you develop and implement your succession management plans, make sure to periodically evaluate and update as necessary to meet your agency’s needs. Common mistakes in succession planning include some obvious (not enough communication) and not-so-obvious (considering only upward succession). Don’t get sucked into the “we’re a government – we can’t do this mindset,” and don’t expect employees to self-identify as leadership candidates. You will need to be realistic in what classifications for which you are willing to fund development and change and learn not to rely on recruitment as the answer to filling all vacancies. Having strong employee development and testing programs to develop skills and truly evaluate who actually have or has cultivated them is critical, as is showing care for employees’ development, and respecting the earned knowledge of those who are close to retirement.

As with all important initiatives, management support is paramount. With a well thought-out and rich succession management plan, you can not only find your way through the impending retirement of the baby boomer generation but can successfully guide your organization to a new generation of leadership.

The Singer Group is a management consulting firm that helps public, private and social sector organizations reach full potential through forward-thinking human resources and organizational development strategies that get results.

To schedule a complimentary consultation, contact Paula Singer at 410-561-7561 or email


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