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How to Build a Strong Succession Plan for Your Workforce

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide The Human Resources Playbook for Government. Download the full guide here.

Succession planning is one of those critical tasks that organizations know they need to do. But few do it well — if at all.

To be clear, succession planning isn’t an HR issue; it’s a workforce issue for everyone, and it’s also hard work, said Karen Niparko, Executive Director of the Office of Human Resources (OHR) for the city and county of Denver.

It isn’t easy knowing that employees you groom for future roles could resign and pursue other offers. But managers can’t be paralyzed by that fear because employee development is one of the most important steps they can take to increase retention and make people feel like they are contributing.

The question every manager, HR professional and senior leader must consider, Niparko said: Are they effectively planning for readiness candidates who are able to step in when someone retires or leaves the organization?

But here’s part of the challenge: “In a private company, you can identify internal talent, place them on a development path for succession, and when the job opens you can promote them,” she said. “In the public sector, with competitive hiring, when you have an opening you commit to post it and make it available to everyone and select the most qualified candidate. If your leaders have been coaching for development and growth, they will have developed a pool of internal employees who can compete well for the position.”

Although challenging, proper readiness planning is not impossible. Here’s how Denver gets the job done.

First identify what Niparko calls your exposure. What is the impact if key employees retire or resign? How would your agency respond to these events? What future plans are in place? For example, does your agency anticipate that the workforce will grow? Will new skills be required?

Determine what development opportunities are in place for employees. If your organization conducts employee engagement surveys, use that data to gauge sentiments about career opportunities and the ability to be promoted.

The number of retirement-eligible employees isn’t the only data agencies must consider. Part of readiness planning is identifying how many people could leave and when that is most likely to happen. Niparko said one Denver agency could lose 16 percent of its workforce next year if all retirement-eligible employees decide to move on. That’s where data analytics comes in. Using analytics, Denver found that on average, people typically retire within two years of becoming eligible. Denver still needs to plan, but granular data is helping the city create a more effective readiness and workforce strategy.

Start preparing readiness candidates and work with leaders to see who could potentially fill positions before they become vacant. What type of development are those candidates receiving, and have you spoken with them about their aspirations, skills and skills gaps that would preclude them from moving into certain roles?

Create a competency-based learning and development model for individual contributors, supervisors and agency heads. The model should make clear what the competencies are for each role.

Expose employees to information that extends beyond their daily tasks. For example, Denver encourages employees to develop stronger skills by getting involved in city initiatives and committees outside their department.

The city has a budget policy called dual incumbency that requires a partnership between agencies and the city’s budget office. Let’s say an employee decides to retire in the next month or two. To ensure knowledge is transferred and disruptions in operations are limited, an agency can use the competitive hiring process to hire or promote an employee who can work alongside the future retiree, glean expertise and prepare to fully take on the role when the retiree leaves.

Succession planning is not a canned program, Niparko said. It is specific to an organization. Start the conversation with department leaders and partner with HR. It’s a collaborative process.

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