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Succession Planning: Navigating the Incoming Wave

A wave is coming. I’m not talking about the effect of rising sea levels nor anything resulting from the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, but the accelerating retirement of public sector workers born between 1946-64, the so-called “Baby Boom” generation. Added to the natural increase in turnover due to age and length of service are those who may have become eligible but delayed retirement plans during the uncertainty of the “Great Recession.”

Some local governments are taking active steps to plan for the expected turnover so that as vacancies occur in key positions, they have employees poised to move up. Efforts to deepen the talent pool range from fairly simple professional development programs, which passively allow self-motivated staff to prepare themselves through training opportunities paid for by the employer, to very deliberate attempts to identify tomorrow’s potential leaders and provide them with career coaching, formal education, and/or targeted training.

Here are a few comments, recommendations, and methods from local governments in Washington that are trying to meet this challenge.

Identify the Need and the Internal Talent, Then Set a Pathway

A retired city manager described it to me this way: “Trying to predict who will retire when is not only futile, but can actually lead to age discrimination, even with well-intended succession planning.”

“Instead, I recommend preparing an organizational chart, by position, color-coded as to WHEN that individual COULD retire within 1-2 years, 3-5 years...etc. Then start to identify up-and-comers who could be ready within a 2-5 year horizon and start targeted internal training and temporary ‘on-the-job training’ rotations within the primary department they serve and in other departments citywide.”

“This is a proactive approach, rather than leaving things to chance. Doing nothing often means the next opening by default goes to the next most senior employee but not necessarily the best that could have been achieved with some planning.”

Find and Use Reliable Training Sources

Another city manager told me, “I had my department heads use the materials and suggestions in ICMA’s online training program Success in Succession Planning: Building a Program that Works.  I follow up using the reports in the discussions between as part of their performance discussions.”

A 5-Step Approach to a Smooth Planning Process

Another city did a multiyear projection anticipating succession planning for senior management staff. In our conversation about this project, the city administrator made these five points.

Being Aware and Proactive Goes a Long Way: Get informed several years in advance of a pending vacancy due to retirement.  This requires talking openly to each of your department heads about their projected retirement date, primarily the year and month.

Identify and Anticipate Your Needs: Your community and organization changes over time. The types of senior staff you will need will most likely change over time, too. The skills needed to respond to rapid growth may not be the same as those needed to build and sustain the community connections that follow.

Devise a Plan and Execute It: While going through a transition, whether due to retirement or reorganization, continually remind the employees in each department about the succession plan so they understand it and can adjust to their new, emerging roles.

Facilitate a Smooth Transition Process: Invite all affected employees to participate in the recruitment process.  Allow them to ‘interview’ the candidates. Ask them their opinions about a candidate’s strengths and perceived shortcomings based on a list of criteria.

Provide an Overlap or Adjustment Period: Based on your organization’s needs and financial resources, provide for at least two weeks for the departing and arriving employees to work together. Sometimes, though, longer is better.

As an example, the city administrator related these following experiences with recent hires: “For us, we hired one director just two weeks out. In that instance, a shorter transition helped with the changes required with the consolidation of what had formerly been two departments.”

In contrast, were these hirings.

“Our police chief replacement was made two years out from his retirement and the fire chief replacement was one year out. For these two positions, the longer transition signaled a commitment to the department employees and ensured the exchange of critical information and knowledge.”

Strengthening Emerging Leaders with Targeted Training

For my final example, here is a plan from a city that has done a thorough assessment of their workforce. This city profiles potential future leaders and identifies key positions in the organization then compares the possible professional development opportunities that could make those emerging leaders solid candidates by the time an opening might occur.

This approach includes developing individual training plans for employees who have been identified as “up-and-comers.” However, the city does not include this list of up-and-coming employees directly in the organizational plan in order to avoid conflicts between staff.

To develop employees that can assume positions of greater responsibility, the city refers to this sample list of assignments to determine whether such training may become part of an individual’s employee development plan.

  • Job Enrichment
  • Job Rotation
  • Special Projects
  • Committee Assignments
  • Task Force Participation
  • Lead Person Responsibilities
  • Giving Presentations
  • Preparing Proposals
  • Writing grants
  • Presentations to City Council or others
  • Chairing a Committee
  • Developing a New Program
  • Temporary Job Assignments
  • Working With a Mentor
  • Teaming with an Expert
  • 360 Feedback
  • Focused Interviews
  • Training & Education
  • Cross Training
  • Serving as a mentor or trainer
  • Write an Administrative Policy and Procedure
  • Develop a Desk Manual
  • Conduct training
  • Conduct Research
  • Write a Newsletter or Article
  • Evaluate A Program And Make Recommendations
  • Prepare A Media Release

To grossly paraphrase General Patton, “Any plan is better than no plan.” You stand a better chance at organizational survival by anticipating the wave that’s already coming and successfully riding it with a succession plan, or you risk being overwhelmed when that wave breaks over you.

Help in developing a formal succession plan may be available from organizations like ICMA, mentioned above, or through a risk management agency like the Washington Cities Insurance Authority.

Does your jurisdiction have a succession plan in place or is it just beginning to prepare for senior-level retirements?  Contact me at or 206-625-1300.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.