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A Basic Approach to Succession Planning

Succession planning is generally described as identifying and developing potential candidates to fill upcoming vacancies in key positions. Many organizations, including those in the public sector, are finding it to be a valuable process to engage current employees and to avoid gaps in service caused by vacancies. While succession planning can make sense for most any organization, the building blocks of the process may vary, depending on the size and demographics of the jurisdiction. And, of course, any plan must be consistent with your organization’s policies and rules.

For those just starting to develop a succession planning strategy, here’s a basic approach I found valuable in my time as an HR Director:

  1. Think Ahead. Identify key positions that are likely to become vacant in the near future due to expected retirements or other projected departures. For example, an organization might identify which department directors are likely to retire in the next three to five years.

  2. Categorize your essential needs. Make sure you know the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are most important for these positions. This step may be as simple as updating existing classifications or job descriptions.

  3. Identify potential candidates. Look internally to see if any current employees may be good individuals to fill the projected vacancies. In a small organization this might be done directly by organizational leadership, who can assess employees and propose possible candidates for discussion/development for future promotional opportunities. Another option is through performance planning—employees and supervisors work together to pinpoint career goals and agree on a development plan to grow needed skills. Additionally, you can create an internal leadership development program for employees interested in career advancement to create a pool of employees prepared to assume future leadership positions.

  4. Foster skills early. Work with identified candidates to agree on important developmental needs and make a plan for meeting these needs. Depending on your time frame, one approach is to use annual individual plans. The supervisor and employee would agree on the specific development activities for the upcoming year and meet regularly to discuss and monitor progress. Possible development activities include: college courses, training classes, job shadowing, stretch assignments, and mentoring.

In addition to working on employee development, succession planning can also help focus the organization on looming knowledge or experience gaps. If a key employee is likely to retire in the next one or two years, the organization can work with the employee to be sure records and systems are in place so that when the employee leaves, years of knowledge don’t walk out the door with the employee. Succession planning often has the added benefits of increasing employee engagement and improving the skill and performance of your workforce.

Succession planning does not guarantee that an employee will get a specific job, nor that an employee will necessarily be promoted within your organization. A small organization may have more talented candidates than positions available. Or timing can be wrong—an employee may be ready to advance and leave before an internal vacancy occurs or a key job may open before any internal candidate is ready. But succession planning can increase the likelihood that your organization will have one or more strong internal candidates for promotion, if and when projected vacancies occur.

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About Marci Wright

Marci Wright writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Marci Wright retired in 2014 after over 16 years as the City of Shoreline’s first Human Resources Director. Previously, she worked for Thurston County as Director of Employee and Administrative Services (1987 - 1997) and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (1980 - 1987). Currently volunteering for MRSC she continues to be interested in the full range of human resource issues, especially training, facilitation and problem resolution.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.