With all the immediate challenges we face, succession planning sometimes falls low on the list. But the first step to implementing a successful succession plan strategy is understanding what it is and how it can help us in the future. At Mile High Flood District (and other organizations like us), the goal of succession planning is to have multiple internal candidates ready to take on a new position when it becomes available, so organizations can retain institutional knowledge from one generation to the next. Without this, we are forced to seek an external candidate or identify and bring up a single internal candidate, neither of which will have the institutional knowledge or give us the opportunity to explore new ways to address strategic initiatives.
In part one of this two-part series on succession planning, we will focus on best practices for managerial succession planning as well as practices to help ensure that the staff of an organization will be able to produce great candidates for certain leadership roles within the company. In part two we will focus on MHFD’s plan for integrating more specific and technical components into succession planning when we lose key employees in key positions, which was inspired by MHFD’s Flood Warning Manager of over 35 years retiring last month. The basis of this plan is also documented in a University of Colorado Denver capstone study by MHFD’s Holly Piza, and is available through our Resources page.
Best Practices and Recommendations for Succession Planning
Talent Pool Development
To fill positions with the most qualified individuals, leaders within the organization should focus on developing a talent pool. The perspective that every employee in the organization is actual or potential talent, given the opportunity and direction maximizes the number of potential internal candidates and supports growth and development opportunities of all employees, an approach that has benefits beyond that of succession planning. This speaks to providing career development by exposing staff early in their career to a wide variety of the organization’s initiatives and providing opportunities for knowledge and experience sharing throughout all positions in the organization.
As an example, in 2018, MHFD restructured into a watershed structure that supports talent pool development. Rather than jurisdictional boundaries, Watershed Boundaries are based on stream systems. In this structure, watershed teams led by a Watershed Manager work to provide a variety of services to the local governments and general population within the watershed. While this structure exposes internal employees to several different types of projects, this doesn’t replace the need to provide dedicated resources and expertise in specific areas. In some cases, this means creating a dedicated position for a promising employee with specific expertise to lead a service area. In other cases, it means creating a team of key employees to ensure a service area has adequate resources and support.
Another key part of succession planning is systemic insight. Most organizations have a vision and mission statement. At MHFD, in addition to our mission and vision, we refer even more frequently to a set of core values that help us guide discussions daily. Defining these guiding statements has been helpful in getting the whole team on the same page and giving us a framework by which we can navigate a process that provides consistency in decision making. To see an example, check out MHFD’s mission, vision and core values on our About Us page.
Systemic insight focuses on the way that the parts of a system relate to each other and how systems work overtime and with the context of a larger system. Developing guiding statements for each service or program further solidifies understanding of how each part or service contributes to the whole and the overall mission of the organization and ultimately helps with the success of a succession plan. This is as simple as formulating a statement of mission for each program or service provided. The statement of mission for each area of work should also be supported by documentation of policy guidelines, clarifying workflows, identifying the target groups for action, determining the people and roles needed to help knowledge development, and priority setting.
Leadership Development Including Mentoring
When we talk about leaders at MHFD, it is not specific to certain positions within the District but a leadership role that any of us might serve in, given the right situation. With everyone from Baby Boomers to Gen Z now in our office, we have found that we are all both sharing and learning from others. In this way, leadership development is important and relevant to all of us. At MHFD we have a monthly “Leadership Lunch” where different staff members lead discussions and help others with their career development. Since most learning is done on the job, leadership development programs also include on-the-job work assignments, projects, team participation, and external training and events. Programs can also include 360-degree feedback, executive coaching, mentoring, and networking.
Mentoring increases employees’ positive emotional attachment to the organization and prepares them to be future leaders. Individuals need multiple mentors and need different mentors at different times in their career in order to be the most successful, develop core skills, and reach their career goals. While all managers should engage in mentoring relationships with direct reports, you can’t count on immediate supervisors to fill all mentoring needs. We have heard from internal employees that the best mentor relationships are those that develop organically. To do so, MHFD aims to create opportunities for different leaders within an organization to work with different staff members and uphold an environment where managers see providing mentorship as part of their job. All of this can help contribute to a successful succession plan for the future.
Career Progression Clarity
Employees perceive succession planning practices not just as planning for filling key positions but as a tool for general career development. In this way, effective succession planning practices provide benefits to both the organization and the individual. Proper planning and management of career paths and career development can achieve organizational needs while also fulfilling staff aspirations. An individual’s clarity in understanding their career path will help an organization fulfill succession planning needs and having a supervisor that models an ideal role in that path provides even stronger clarity. By both providing career path clarity and having a supervisor that models the next step, the path is further clarified and reinforced, narrowing any gaps between one position and the next vertical step.
Performance Management Systems
From large companies to small businesses, performance management is another key component to succession planning and it all starts with a well-written job description that identifies key competencies and includes tasks consistent with the position. Skills, knowledge, and competencies should progress as job descriptions move from one level to the next. Performance management also includes planning for skill and knowledge development, appraisal of skills, performance development plans, and career goals.
Planning is proactive identification of internal and external training needed for the development of the core skills for each position. This can also include special projects that can be used to expand learning opportunities specific to an individual (i.e., stretch projects)
The more specific the appraisal process is to the job description, the better. This is an opportunity to, on a regular basis, review successes and identify areas for development. A good evaluation is specific and delivers information that is not new — there shouldn’t be any surprises.
At MHFD, we all draft our own goals and/or work plan for the year and share it with others for feedback. This is a chance for everyone to think about their role and provide their own take on next steps for further professional development.
Using forms specific to different positions in the organization can help reinforce the distinct skills and competencies needed to progress from one position to the next.
When employees understand the connection between their contributions to the objectives of the organization and their personal growth, they will be able to envision a path ahead that empowers them to pursue growth opportunities that interest them and also complement the objectives of the organization. In this way, good performance management can both serve to advance a succession planning program, provide skill development for the individual, and create future leaders for the organization.
A Path Forward
While these succession plan best practices all sound like good ideas, how can we reduce the loss of institutional knowledge when replacing technical positions? Part two of this blog will focus on our plan to incorporate specific and technical components into these best practices for managerial succession planning, especially in the instance of when a key employee leaves and how proper replacement planning can help place promising employees in these critical roles.
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