Success in Succession Planning

Posted on June 26, 2023

A note pinned to a bulletin board reads "Education???"

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Kayla Barber-Perrotta, Budget & Performance Manager at the City of Brighton, CO. Connect on Linkedin.

What I am Listening To: Speak Now album by Taylor Swift. I’m a Swiftie for life and cannot wait to hear her version. 

What I’m Watching: Queen Cleopatra on Netflix

What I’m Eating: My mom’s cooking. She’s helping me out while my husband is recovering surgery and I swear I am going to put on 10lbs!

Since I started facilitating the Brighton Performance and Leadership Academy last year I regularly find myself in conversations around succession planning within my organization. It is inevitable. Employees are always moving. It can be to new and exciting opportunities that just don’t currently exist in the city, retirements, life changes, or just simply time to part ways. No matter the reason, the outcome is the same; there is always some level of transition pain. That being said, times of transition do not (and in fact should not) be crisis pain points. If you are looking ahead and having strategic conversations around employee cycles, there are actually numerous opportunities to mitigate the impacts of these personnel transitions.

  1.   Start the Conversation: I’ve never understood why succession planning is such a taboo topic in some organizations. The reality is whether you are discussing it or not, employees are growing, life is happening, and your organization is changing. So why not open up the dialogue so you can actually guide it in a positive direction? As a leader, starting the conversation requires a proactive and persistent approach. It isn’t enough to simply tell directors to think about succession planning and hope it trickles down; you need to start by creating a safe space for this dialogue at all levels of the organization. Succession planning generates all sorts of fears. An employee may be worried about completing succession planning activities because they feel it makes them replaceable, an employee who is thinking about leaving may not say anything for fear of being pushed out before they are ready, or a manager may be worried about discussing an employee’s growth needs without a clear path forward for fear that pushes the employee out the door. All of these are valid fears, but they are not insurmountable.

As leaders, it is important to lead by example and intentionally create multiple pathways for these conversations. On my team, this conversation starts early. As part of the interview process, I will ask candidates about their long-term goals and how they see the analyst position helping them to achieve those goals. There is no right or wrong answer and sometimes the answer is simply they are too early in their career to know what opportunities are out there, but no matter the answer I am usually able to start an early conversation around potential opportunities to support them. This carries into their initial assignments. I always try to provide a few projects in that first portfolio that appeal to their interests and since we assign point people to various departments for budget analysis, I try to pair them with departments that also support their interest areas. I also discuss the “why” with them so they are armed with enough background to get the most personal growth out of their assignment as well. This discussion is only built on as we develop their first professional development plan at the end of their first month and check in on those goals every six months. 

I also make sure to lead by example. I am lucky enough to have a great manager who supports me in discussing my long-term goals and where I want to go in the future. This gives me a fantastic opportunity to share that I too am having these types of conversations and how I am being supported in my growth. I am very transparent in asking questions in team settings so they can see firsthand that support for development goes up the ladder. We also openly discuss why succession planning is so important as an organization and invite ideas from the group about how best to achieve it. This takes it from being a process happening to employees to being something they are invested in. 

  1.   Stretch Projects: A stretch project is a project that asks an employee to extend beyond their existing knowledge, skills, or duties in order to provide them with professional development and growth experience. This can be a great way to support succession planning initiatives as it provides a two-way investment. You get the value of extending your bench of employees who can perform key functions and an opportunity to see how someone might do in the future with a higher-level role or responsibility, and the employee gets valuable experience and feedback necessary to help them one day move forward in their career. This method also helps to build trust by empowering employees to try things outside of their comfort zone. 

This method is one I have utilized extensively in the last year. Since we have a positive culture around discussing growth and regular development discussions, I know I have a great analyst that is interested in taking over my role in the future. This has allowed me to share my plate of work by identifying items that will provide her necessary skills if she one day applies for my role. Similarly, I have been able to have these same conversations with my city manager so I can take on stretch projects that give me experience in skills necessary for an assistant city manager role. This chain of growth communication and willingness to embrace stretch projects has allowed our team to flex if someone’s plate is getting overly full, if someone is taking a well-deserved vacation, or if a medical emergency arises. 

  1.   SOPs, Transition Memos, and More: As previously mentioned, not all transitions are expected. Sometimes for reasons beyond anyone’s control, an employee suddenly departs. I’d like to think this is always for a positive reason like winning the lottery or welcoming a new family member, but this can also be due to changes in health or that the organization is simply moving in a different direction. Even when you do not have time to plan a transition and someone internal to grow there are still plenty of general processes one can implement to help mitigate this sudden pain point. 

First and foremost, work with your teams to identify key processes. What are the most critical things your department does day-to-day and what would have the greatest impact on the organization if there was suddenly no one there to do it? Then identify who on your team knows how to carry out these processes. I actually did a storyboard around this very question when I was interim Finance Director and it was tremendously helpful. If you have a number of critical processes that only one person knows how to do these are prime areas for introducing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), checklists, or mechanisms that allow any member of your team to pick up a key task and complete it. 

Some key things to remember are to prioritize which processes you want SOPs for so an employee is not overwhelmed, give employees the grace to take a little longer the next time they complete the process so they can write the SOP along the way instead of as a separate task added to their long list, and finally explain why it benefits the employee to complete the SOP. This reasoning can change based on the environment of the organization and even the specific employee. If it is someone who intrinsically understands the value of succession planning then provide that explanation. If it is someone who has spent a lot of time training people to appeal to how this will save them time moving forward or if this is someone who feels they cannot take a vacation because they have no backup appeal to that pain point.

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