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Succession Planning

By Katherine Craig

Ottawa Human Resource Professionals Association, Up-Date Magazine, March 2011


A great deal of attention has been devoted to the departure of Baby Boomers from the workforce, and with good cause. Some industry observers see a flood, others a steady trickle, but the fact remains that the flow of senior managers out of the system is a troubling phenomenon that organizations will have to address for the foreseeable future. Why? Because the gap these Boomers are leaving in the upper ranks can't necessarily be filled by the middle managers coming up behind them.

What happens when Boomers leave their corner offices and hand the keys over to Generation X? The answer is, in part, a numbers game. The early 1970s saw extraordinary hiring in the federal government and significant growth in the private sector. By contrast, the 1990s were one of the leanest on record - a flagging economy and a government hiring freeze chilled the uptake of Generation X, and the 40-something managers are now in the unique position of being a minority sandwiched between retiring Boomers and an abundant, yet inexperienced Generation Y.

The issue is particularly prevalent in the public sector: journalist Julie Ireton1 shared some revealing statistics about the rate of attrition in the senior levels of the federal civil service, citing a 9% yearly retirement rate, exactly triple the national average. Private sector employers can look at the state of their public counterparts as a universal issue writ large. Bottom line: effective succession planning is vital to the health and stability of companies large and small, and there are some tangible tools HR managers can engage to ensure their organizations don't suffer the consequences of poor planning.

The first, and most obvious, succession planning strategy is to engage your senior managers as mentors before they retire. But don't just think of them as a resource for the present, and don't limit their counsel to the procedural aspects of their role. They are certainly the most effective means of communicating corporate culture, norms and relationships to their immediate successors, but the knowledge they've amassed should be available beyond the first generation of new leaders. Consider creating an archive for out-going managers; whether it takes the form of printed manuals or DVDs, it should include both technical data, i.e. how to file a funding request, and personal insight, i.e., who to call when it seems the request is wrapped in red tape.

We know that Boomers are making a gradual exit from the workforce2, so your company has the opportunity to retain the services of knowledge-rich retirees on a consulting basis. This can be a cost-effective means of keeping your corporate memories onsite while allowing the next generation of leaders take on the responsibilities of their predecessors. Be sure to set the parameters of your consultant's role, though. Tensions can arise when returning executives try to re-establish their former role of authority rather than maintaining an arm's length distance from day-to-day operations.

Just as important as retaining and engaging qualified mentors is the ability to identify future leaders from the junior ranks of your organization. These candidates won't necessarily be 'high fliers' - but they will demonstrate a solid aptitude for their given role and a willingness to explore opportunities beyond their immediate sphere of duties. One good method of unearthing these 'diamonds in the rough' is to hold regular lunch-and-learn sessions: they will benefit the organization as a whole because they provide an opportunity to transfer skills and information to a broader audience, and they will also bring potential candidates to the surface, those who exhibit a genuine interest in expanding their knowledge of the company.

Once you have identified an employee with leadership potential, enlist a senior manager to mentor your candidate. Executives in the upper ranks of an organization have a comprehensive understanding of the inner workings, and they have developed leadership skills along the way, skills that can be taught to potential leaders who have the right attitude. They can show their protege paths that have been taken successfully, and steer them clear of routes that have proven unproductive in the past.

In-house mentors are an excellent resource and a key element in an effective succession plan - particularly in the civil service where process and systems are vital to daily operations - but it's also important to engage third-party expertise in order to cultivate future leaders. Since the career trajectory for the next generation of managers is much steeper than it was for their predecessors, utilizing a one-to-one coaching program will smooth the transition from 'team member' to 'team leader'. Both middle and junior managers have an acute fear of going 'too far too fast' in their organization and are seeking a measured climb up the corporate ladder. One-to-one coaching will reduce anxiety, enhance competency and increase long-term retention.

Succession planning is an integral part of sound management, whether you're a small business or a large government agency. Implementing proactive measures to archive policies, procedures and practices within your organization will minimize redundancies and accelerate growth. Encouraging out-going managers to mentor their successors fosters consistency and smoothes the ascent of future leaders. Implementing individual coaching programs for those in leadership roles will galvanize their confidence and increase retention. The demographics of your workforce will change; keeping pace with that change will define the success of your organization in the future.

1"The Middle Rung", Julie Ireton, The Current, CBC Radio One, December 14, 2010
2"Most Canadians don't plan to retire: survey", CBC News, January 4, 2011; "How to manage an aging workforce", Jasmine Budak, Canadian Business, September 28, 2010