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Succession planning at a glance

At a basic level, it is vitally important for every organisation to be able to identify what positions and functions are critical for its survival. Organisations must have competent people, who are ready to fill whatever vacancies arise from this demanding and changing public service climate. This is where succession planning comes in. A formal, well thought out succession plan when properly developed can lead to greatly enhanced performance and job satisfaction, along with the identification and retention of the best talent available. In this respect, succession planning should not be viewed merely as an emergency measure for difficult times but instead as a means of nurturing the existing talent within an organisation. To date, this nurturing of talent remains largely unexploited in the public service, as the Government has tended to adopt a reactive as opposed to a proactive approach to staff changes.

Human capital

A recent study conducted by the Centre for Innovation and Structural Change (CISC), published in 2011, revealed that human capital is the most neglected element of human resource strategy in the public sector. This is despite the fact that human capital remains absolutely vital for the future success of any establishment. In light of the current environment of staff changes and reductions in Ireland, it is crucial that organisations address this issue as a matter of urgency and ensure that they have the talent in place to equip themselves to work towards securing a brighter future. If we take a look at the situation so far we can see that, according to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the two main areas facing the most employee departures are health and education. Figures from the HSE show up to 3,200 individual requests being processed. In Limerick alone, 47 out of an approximate 200 midwives have chosen to leave.


The present situation

Currently, managers tend to pursue ad-hoc strategies in times of change. As one senior manager in the Public Service said: “Succession planning has some connotations of picking out a high flyer and anointing him/her. This does not sit well in the Public Service as we are only relatively recently into a culture of merit based promotion and have not really progressed to the next stage”. There are, however, signs that managers are becoming more aware of these issues with the formation of the Senior Public Service which has within its remit the task of encouraging intra-service mobility and development at assistant secretary level. In addition, The Workforce Planning Framework for the Civil Service is also producing a plan which will incorporate the process of evaluating staffing needs. This plan will involve profiling on the basis of skills and age. By identifying gaps in these areas they will advance an action plan, a process that incorporates aspects of succession planning.


In cases where succession planning is not implemented, the interim acquisition of skills and outsourcing is often used as a stop gap to replace vital lost skill and knowledge. However, essential key relationships, organisational memory, and networks, which contribute to a strong and healthy organisation, are just some of the elements that cannot readily be substituted from external sources. The answer to these challenges lies in the development of comprehensive succession planning policies and practices. Failure to provide for this succession means that significant departures from the organisation will force an urgent scramble for solutions by management. This type of upheaval and ad-hoc troubleshooting is never helpful and seldom successful with many system failures arising in the past, even in times of less challenging crises.


The key elements of succession planning

Succession planning is a process that transcends simply replacing people when the next vacancy occurs. It also seeks to identify, cultivate and assist high potential candidates as they ascend the promotional ladder. Some organisations have informal systems while others have more formalised approaches, the best approach depending largely on the structure of the individual organisation and the field of activity in which they are engaged. In any event, succession planning must be an on-going process, and a process in which senior managements take a proactive interest. For example, someone from HR may be appointed to work with senior line managers in order to identify and coordinate a talent pool and organise their development. Alternatively, a function with the title of “Talent Manager” may be established. Whatever the case may be, succession planning should place an emphasis on both learning and experience as both are equally important in terms of leadership development and technical excellence. The organisation must therefore be conscious to develop skills not only for their immediate needs but also for the future. The simple model on the next page illustrates what needs to be done.


An effective succession planning policy ought to be developed alongside the organisation’s strategic planning process, the reason for this being that both succession planning and strategic planning deal with anticipating future changes. Each organisation should also develop its own personalised competency models as these models must be tailored to compliment the individual organisation’s mission, values, goals and strategy. With regard to finding the right candidates for a particular position, managers should bear in mind that that it is not simply the technical ability possessed by the candidate that should be assessed but also their leadership skills, innovation and communication all of which are crucial to fully prosper in a senior role. Once high potential candidates have been identified they should then be given a semi-structured programme of development in different areas so that they can grasp the challenges and issues at each level and across functions. This programme can consist of a wide array of elements such as mentoring, coaching, performance and development reviews, formal and informal training and in some cases external experiences in outside organisations. The PMDS (Performance Management Development System) model is also an important basis for objective identification as are senior managers, who should always remain closely involved in the selection process. Like all processes, the measurement of the impact and results of succession planning need to be assessed and particular attention paid to key performance indicators relating to internal post fulfillment, organisation success and staff retention.


Although succession planning usually needs to be a long term goal, it is never too late to include it as part of the transition process that is currently occurring, if only to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. In order to keep the succession planning process alive and current, it is essential that communication exists at each level of the company hierarchy. Furthermore, developing the skills of those earmarked for promotion should take place at regular intervals on an assessment and multidisciplinary basis be this via on-site experience, task rotation, individual projects or other assignments. Some organisations even go as far as creating specific posts in order to give candidates the experience they require. The post of Project Manager, for example, could be created on a temporary basis. It is also important that every succession plan makes allowances for innovative people who defy convention in the quest to enhance the value of public service. Excluding such people within the organisation, simply because they do not conform to organisation tradition, may mean that a valuable potential leader will have been lost to the public service.


Finally, during the succession planning process, it is essential to keep candidates informed regarding their progress and ensure that the lines of communication remain open. Succession planning is a fundamental part of the HR strategy in all successful organisations. It will be a major change for the public sector, yet it is inevitable and like all change that have proven benefits, it should be embraced rather than resisted.


Tom McGuinness is the Managing Partner with McGuinness Killen Partnership ltd, Human Resource Consultants.

This article appeared in the February issue of the PAI Journal. To view the Journal please click here.