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Succession Planning

Research over the last few years suggests that higher education now faces an unprecedented period of accelerating change. Challenges such as tight budgets and scarce resources, changing demographics of potential students, and calls for technology-driven innovation increase the pressure on the postsecondary system to drive social mobility and economic development. Without identifying and investing in the next generation of leaders, many institutions will not be prepared to meet the current and future business demands of their organizations. Therefore, it is understood that leadership matters – both to a campus community and to the higher education enterprise. Without effective leadership, higher education will be unable to meet the pressing demands of tomorrow as well as take advantage of emerging opportunities for institutional growth and success (Eckel & Hartley, 2011).

In addition to these rising challenges, higher education is contending with a talent drain. Statistics indicate that an aging population of institutional leaders will be soon exiting the workforce with few qualified successors in the academic pipeline to replace them (King, 2008; Barden, 2009; Hastings, 2006). This talent drain exists today across all employment sectors, forcing leaders to question how to cultivate the next generation of leadership. Thus, organizations are urged to be proactive and prepare for future performance through succession planning. By investing in their employees, public and private entities are building career paths that will benefit not only the future of the organization but also the future of these individuals.

Succession Planning Defined
Since the early 1970s, succession planning has been an important talent management initiative in corporate America (Rothwell, 2010). Emerging from Henri Fayol’s (1841-1925) classic principles of management, succession planning is rooted in the belief that management has a responsibility to ensure the stability of personnel.

Many businesses and organizations have since experimented with various approaches to succession planning, investing in training and development of individuals to equip them with the skills necessary to pursue future leadership . Such activities ensure that organizations have talent in place to fill the leadership pipeline as well as help organizations stay highly competitive with minimum disruption to the mission. However, depending upon an organization’s attitudes and beliefs, succession planning can be interpreted in several ways, capturing the progression from the forecasting of replacements and/or retirements, to the systematic effort of ensuring leadership continuity in multiple individuals at multiple levels in the organization.

At the simplistic end of the continuum, replacement planning focuses on the identification of successors for key positions. Little or no development occurs for those individuals that are assuming the new role outside of ad-hoc on-the-job experience. Therefore, this succession process is often considered reactive and narrow-focused. In contrast, succession management aims at identifying and developing successors at all managerial levels. Anchoring the most comprehensive end of the continuum, succession management ensures the continued effective performance of an organization through the capacity building of talent. Thus, succession management is the most robust approach, but it requires the most effort and resources to integrate talent development into an organization’s daily operations.

With that said, succession planning falls in the middle of the continuum. Derived from replacement planning processes, succession planning is more deliberate and methodical because it is linked with intentional development initiatives targeted at successors. Succession planning has elements of succession management whereas it is highly strategic, objective, and formalized to yield broad talent pools, but its focus leans toward successors for top level positions.

In addition to the identification and development of top talent, succession planning is essential for gaining competitive advantage. It can help increase retention by ensuring that there is prepared talent for every important senior role in the organization. However, succession planning is not a perfect science; it is not a single or linear process. Succession is an ongoing process whereby the top tier positions have clearly defined high potential employees. In addition to progression and development, succession planning forces the organization into a discipline of keeping track of top talent.

Influences on Succession Planning
Regardless of the industry sector, there are several interrelated reasons why succession planning is of crucial concern. External forces as well as internal needs are impacting the sustainability of today’s organizations. Numerous employers have realized that succession planning can provide stability and confidence for stakeholders, eradicate the problem of a gap in leadership, and create a competitive advantage. Thus, organizations must satisfy many of the external and internal influences in order to survive in this fierce environment.

External influences. The U.S. workforce is driven externally by shifting demographics, technological advancements, and economic conditions. These influences often present roadblocks for organizations to operation properly or advance in their specific industry. Every progressive company must be involved in understanding these key aspects as it relates to changes in its business environment.

For instance, the shifting demographics are leading to a dramatically different working population and should not be ignored. Such changes include increases in racial and ethnic populations as well as age distribution. As for technology, the pace of its change will continue to accelerate in the coming decades, and organizations are expecting these technological advances to increase demand for a highly skilled workforce, to support higher productivity growth, and to change the organization of business. And though the economic recovery effort has made progress since 2008, the U.S. continues to struggle with long-term budget challenges and economic growth.

Internal influences. Alongside the external forces mentioned above, organization culture internally impacts the sustainability and viability of any business. Culture suggests a complex and dynamic system, and is found to influence the successes and failures of an organization as well as its leadership.

Since culture affects operational efficiency, organizations are concerned with the range of leadership development challenges presently faced, including reductions in mid-management level positions and depleted resources. In addition, the type of culture change that organizations are experiencing is becoming more radical. For instance, inclusive workplaces will be in even higher demand with the change in global demographics.

Leadership and Succession Planning in Higher Education
Higher education is not immune to the country’s labor shortage or financial crisis. As Lapovsky (2012) denotes, the landscape of American higher education has never before been so unstable. Increasing demands from students and government, changing demographics, structural and fiscal challenges, and calls for accountability have contributed to the blow felt by most colleges and universities during the height of the economic crisis (Fusch et al., 2011; Lapovsky, 2012). In addition, institutions’ aging workforce and irregular development of leadership impact the higher education enterprise (Fusch et al., 2011).

Several national organizations and advocacy groups host leadership development programs for the higher education community (i.e. The Council on Independent Colleges, The American Council on Education, The Harvard Graduate School of Education). Though these externally developed programs enrich the higher education arena and select members of its community, the results of a survey conducted by Academic Impressions in April 2010 emphasized the magnitude to which higher education is underprepared in its commitment to leadership development. Approximately half of the senior and mid-level managers that participated in the survey graded their institution poorly when assessing the level of commitment the college or university has toward their development as a leader. Forty percent of the respondents indicated that they were not aware of their institutions doing anything in preparation for the mass retirement of faculty and administrators in the coming years. Moreover, a small but relative percentage indicated that, as a means of bridging budget shortfalls, their institution is gladly awaiting the anticipated retirement wave.

To further complicate the situation, institutions are encouraged to create and strengthen their current leadership development programs beyond the emphasis on traditional leadership skills. Tomorrow’s leaders will not be the same as yesterday’s leaders; therefore, most progressive leadership development programs include some form of coaching and mentoring, stretch assignments, access to current leadership, and interactive workshops that address key and complex issues in higher education.

Although many corporate entities have adopted the practice of succession planning to strengthen their preparation of leaders, higher education has been slow to embrace the concept. Many colleges and universities are aware of the need for succession planning, but boundaries exist within the culture that prohibit the use of a formal approach. Primary limitations include the standard practice of open searches, the current system of shared governance, and the commitment to a diverse workforce (Witt/Kieffer, 2008). However, the American Council on Education (2008) depicts that today’s pipeline of potential leaders in academe is less than robust. Therefore, the future of academic institutions depends on the ability of the current executives to ensure adequate leadership continuity through constant identification and building of talent from within. In other words, succession planning is a salient matter that deserves the attention of higher education.

Moreover, current research illustrates that the talent of minorities is underutilized in academic leadership. Minorities are frequently underrepresented in most succession plans, often reflecting several issues such as a lack of mentors and the shorter tenure of minority managers (Hastings, 2006).

Psychological Fit Testing
As a powerful complement to succession planning, psychological testing identifies and provides personalized reports for high potential employees. Psychological testing aims to measure interpersonal behavior to reactions to stress, behavioral risks, core values, interests and goals. While common in the corporate world, this assessment of soft skills indicates the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and offers an opportunity for coaching and professional development.

Succession planning is the process of identifying and developing high potential employees, and preparing them for top leadership positions within an organization. Long upheld as a key to sustainable leadership in corporate America for decades, succession planning has only recently gained traction in higher education. Regardless of the industry sector, the latest evolution in succession planning is influenced by external forces within society and the internal needs of today’s organizations. Influences such as shifting demographics, strained economic conditions, and concerns with organizational performance give merit to the consideration of succession planning. Moreover, with increasing demands from students and government as well as greater calls for accountability, American colleges and universities are particularly urged to implement succession planning practices to adapt to this rapidly changing environment.

However, American higher education has been slow to embrace the concept of succession planning (Barden, 2009). Though aware of the need for succession planning, boundaries exist within the institutional culture that prohibits the use of a formal approach. The egalitarian nature of the academy and the current system of shared governances are primary limitations (Witt/Kieffer, 2008). Nonetheless, the future of American colleges and universities depends on the ability to ensure adequate leadership continuity (Rothwell, 2010).

About the Author: John Stevens, Ed.D.

John A. Stevens is Founder and President of Stevens Strategy, LLC, a full-service consulting firm specializing in managing the process of strategic change in colleges, universities and schools. He also serves as a Founder and Principal of Chronos Company, LLC, organized to design, oversee … (Read More)

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