With some 60,000 federal workers set to retire by years end, according to OMB estimates, succession planning must be considered broadly throughout government. Traditionally, succession planning in government has been about executive replacement planning. It has been years since William Rothwell and Stan Poduch pointed out in Public Personnel Management that proactive management could ensure the continuity of leadership by cultivating talent from within the organization through planned development activities.
In todays environment, leaders need to accelerate the preparation of a pool of qualified successors for any level of their organization.
A 2011 study by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton identified four top barriers to succession planning:
- Lack of time
- Inadequate funding for designing programs and developing employees
- Difficulty in assessing and selecting succession candidates
- Difficulty forecasting attrition for succession positions.
Many agencies are making progress toward overcoming these barriers, which will likely persist to varying degrees. The study outlines steps required to develop succession management programs. The guiding vision is that succession management will become an integral, routine element of agency management, just as strategic planning, financial management, and performance measurement are today.
Effective succession management requires agencies to
- set expectations so that managers view themselves as developers of talent, with an eye toward succession management
- give managers the knowledge and tools they need to be successful talent developers
- hold managers accountable through the performance management process
- conduct regular talent reviews to implement and monitor the succession management program
- define what it takes to be successful in positions targeted for succession management
- provide programs, resources, and tools to build a pool of qualified successors.
Set Expectations That Managers Are Talent Developers
According to The Leadership Machine by Robert Eichinger of the Korn Ferry Institute, managers lack proficiency in developing others. In a review of some 60 competencies, developing others was the most challenging for managers. Many have never been expected to be strategic about human resources. Its a mental leap to consider whats nextshort-term responses to personnel issues are the norm. Even managers who do understand the need to develop their successors struggle to find the time to devote to it.
Senior leadership needs to enable mid-level managers to develop talent and then reward the effort through performance bonuses and special recognition. The desired outcome of development is measurable improvement in individual performance, and the single greatest determinant of this is the involvement of the employees manager. Without this support, employees will always struggle to maintain any momentum in their development efforts.
The constancy of purpose required to make a succession plan work requires the commitment of career federal executives. Developing a pipeline of future leaders takes time. It can easily take five years for a high-performing GS-13 to move to a GS-14 role, master it, and become ready for promotion to GS-15.
Political appointees often have such a short planning horizon that succession management never makes their list of priorities. Agency career Senior Executive Service leaders must deliver the message that developing talent for future leadership roles is of paramount importance.
Give Managers Knowledge and Tools To Develop Talent
The HR office should require a half-day training course for managers on how to support the development of their direct reports. The managers role is to be a partner in the employees development, starting with preparing and implementing an individual development plan (IDP). Ongoing support from managers should include
- opportunities to practice new skills
- developmental opportunities such as special projects or rotations
- emotional support and encouragement
- specific feedback on how to improve
- support in obtaining funding for training
- help in getting time away from work to attend training.
Managers are likely to be more motivated and successful in their role if they are trained in the fundamentals of leadership development and learn to be patient with the process of trial and error. They need to understand the 70-20-10 rule of development: 70 percent of development occurs through experience; 20 percent by learning from other people such as managers, coaches and peers; and 10 percent from formal training in the classroom or online.
Knowing comes from observing, doing, incorporating new ideas from the experience, and teaching others how to do it. The most effective learning follows the apprenticeship and mentoring model: learning by observation, and by doing a task with someone who has done it before. (For more on mentoring, see article on p. 42.) The single most important aspect of learning to be a leader is self-awareness, which can only be learned over the course of many months or even years.
Hold Managers Accountable for Developing Talent
Supervisors and managers should be expected to support development of employees by including this in annual performance plans. If employee development is already included, the plans can be revised to sharpen the focus on talent development, with specific expectations regarding support for the succession management program.
For the leadership team, annual ratings against this element can be discussed during semi-annual talent reviews, as explained below.
Conduct Regular Talent Reviews
Talent reviews by the agencys senior leadership team are the key mechanism for keeping the succession management program alive and on track. Leaders should hold a talent management review meeting twice a year. The purpose of the review is to ensure strategic alignment of the succession management program, monitor program status, take any necessary corrective action, and evaluate results. The talent review has three critical benefits.
1. Helps ensure involvement and accountability on the part of senior management.
2.Promotes a culture of sharing talent by giving visibility into high potential employees across the enterprise.
3. Signals the importance of developing talent by establishing a regular review process.
Managers should schedule reviews so that they provide input to the annual performance planning process. The first semi-annual review should coincide with the beginning of the performance appraisal year. This will make it possible to incorporate support for the succession management program into annual performance plans and the appraisal process. The HR office is responsible for supporting the talent reviews by scheduling them, collecting data, and presenting data for monitoring and evaluating the succession management program. Metrics might include number of target positions filled with internal candidates, number of succession pool candidates that are rated as ready now, and retention and turnover data for top talent.
An important objective of the first talent review of the year is to develop guidance for preparation of IDPs and the agencys annual training plan. This guidance will be communicated to all managers with the expectation that IDPs and training requests will be aligned accordingly. For example, there may be a recommended vendor for a leadership development program or a specific training topic.
The agenda for the second talent review meeting should include monitoring the status of implementation of IDPs and planning training and development activities for the next six months. Talent reviews are a good opportunity for senior managers to collectively identify and plan upcoming developmental opportunities, for example, special assignments or rotations, project or program reviews, interagency task forces, or budget exercises.
Define Success for Target Positions
A common failure point in succession planning is a flawed understanding of the qualifications, attributes, and experience that leaders need to be successful in the agencys environment. Managers should prepare a success profile for each target position in the succession management program. Build the profile from a one-hour focus group session that includes the job incumbent, former job incumbent or peer who knows that job well, and the manager of the position.
An effective focus groupcovers a dozen questions that delve into the nature of theposition, beyond the broadduties, skills, and knowledge required to qualitative success factors such as personal attributes, likely reasons for failure, and typical stressors. The success profile section on job fit, in particular, provides more subjective information that describes the behaviors needed for success. This information serves as the basis for evaluating candidates, conducting structured behavioral interviews, and designing leadership development programs that expose participants to the repertoire of behavioral skills they must acquire.
Develop a Pool of Qualified Successors
The old succession planning model of hand-picked successors is obsolete and is not consistent with the merit principles that guide federal human resource management. Best practices in succession planning call for developing a pool of qualified individuals from which future leaders can be selected.
A rule of thumb is that four people must be developed for each target succession planning position. An agency with 25 designated succession planning positions would need to develop a pool of 100 qualified successors. The size of the internal pool would be reduced to the extent that successors are recruited externally. An important element of succession planning strategy is to determine how much external recruitment should be done for target positions.
Develop a large number of qualified candidates as quickly as possible. Agencies should establish leadership development programs and a nomination process with transparent selection criteria. For example, a two-year leadership development program could be built around off-shelf programs offered by The Graduate School USA or the Partnership for Public Service. To accelerate development, candidates should be selected for their willingness and ability to learn and change, and then be exposed to multiple developmental experiences that challenge them. Not surprisingly, the deepest learning occurs when individuals are taken out of their comfort zone. Optimal development takes place when the activity is directly related to day-to-day work.
The extraordinary demands of todays environment of rapid change and budget cuts add an element of complexity that leaders must be able to manage.
Research by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) shows that leadership development approaches that focus on flexibility, collaboration, boundary crossing, and collective leadership are the most effective (see Public Manager archives, summer and fall 2011 issues at www. thepublicmanager.org). The CCL findings suggest that organizations should seek a balance between developing the leadership competencies of individuals and fostering the collective capabilities of teams, groups, networks, and organizational leadership.
A common thread running through studies of leadership development is that choosing the right leadership culture is the difference between success and failure. The coming retirement wave presents federal agencies with a rare opportunity to renew and reshape their leadership culture through visionary succession management.
How Leaders Develop
The starting point for developing a pool of qualified successors for leadership positions is an understanding of how leaders develop. The Leadership Pipeline, a seminal book by Stephen Drotter, James noel, and ram charan (2010), reveals that leadership development is a process of career transitions, each of which demands new skills and new ways of managing and leading. each passage involves a major change in job requirements, with new skills, time horizons, and work values. There are three transition points in the career of a federal manager depicted in the graphic below.
The succession management program should be designed to prepare employees for the appropriate transition point in their management career. For example, new supervisors need to develop their skills in leading teams and promoting teamwork. Managers of programs or functions, on the other hand, must master skills in collaboration and influence across organizational and functional boundaries. They must think strategically and develop an understanding of functions outside their own area of expertise and of how each function contributes to the success of the agency.
The reason many managers are not effective is that they never made the transition to their current leadership level. a gS-15 manager who continues to define her success as supervising technical subject matter expert, for example, will have difficulty finding the time or developing the ability to build coalitions, lead change, and develop a talent pipeline.
Agency leaders should help ensure that hiring and promotion decisions take into account the candidates ability to make the transition to the next level of management. The agencys staffing and talent development functions should work together closely to give employees opportunities to learn and work at the next higher level. Team leads, for example, should receive training in supervisory skills and opportunities to practice them. First-level supervisors at the gS-13 or gS-14 level need exposure to big-picture strategic issues, perhaps by participating in cross-functional projects and interagency task forces.