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Succession Planning-Part 1

Succession planning is the process of identifying and preparing, through mentoring training, education and development, appropriate candidates to replace, as required, key employees within an organization.

Succession planning is the process of identifying and preparing, through mentoring training, education and development, appropriate candidates to replace, as required, key employees within an organization. One may think that succession planning involves only the top person in an organization, such as the CEO, president, or fire chief. While this is the most common concept of succession planning, the need to replace key employees occurs at all levels and can be predictable or unexpected. What we frequently see as promotions, such as with company officers or mid-level supervisors, is similar to the replacement of the fire chief: a key person at that level has left and must be replaced with an appropriate and qualified successor. It makes sense for a supervisor to prepare employees for advancement so that a qualified person is ready to step in when the supervisor leaves for whatever reason. It is the implicit duty of every officer to prepare subordinates to take his or her place.

According to the Older Workers Survey, just 29 percent of human resource professionals surveyed in 2003 in the business world have some form of succession planning in place, while almost 33 percent said their organizations have made no effort to prepare for the retirement of older workers or the effect that these departures will have on their organization. A separate survey by the human resources consulting firm DMB found that 94 percent of human resource professionals polled said their organization had not adequately prepared younger workers for advancement to senior leadership roles.

Unfortunately, succession planning is not practiced in many fire service organizations. A quick search of the on-line card catalog at the National Fire Academy's Learning Resource Center reveals abstracts of many Executive Fire Officer applied research papers identifying the lack of a succession plan when key personnel needed to be replaced.

Succession planning is something that every fire service organization should do because turnover continues to occur at every level in every organization. Many fine books and journal articles are available to serve as detailed resources for developing a succession plan. Having a formal plan is the best approach because every department has different needs. Departments must develop a plan tailored to the unique needs and culture of the department. It is necessary to have a human resources professional familiar with the succession planning process serve as facilitator to assist the department in developing a formal plan. Finally, succession planning is not a one-time exercise but a continuing process that changes as the organization matures.

Getting Started

A leader can do many things immediately to help lay the foundation for succession planning. First, the chief needs to lead the department to create an organizational culture that values education and personal development at all levels. The key leaders of the department must define and publicize clear criteria for advancement. Identifying and communicating to the work force the abilities and qualities needed to move up may also boost employee boost retention. Research has shown that employees tend to remain with an organization where they experience personal and professional growth. Organizational performance improves as employees develop the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to advance.

Next, the chief should identify successor candidates for different operations and levels in the organization. Large organizations may have divisions. All organizations will have promotional opportunities "up through the ranks." The chief should encourage his officers to identify personnel with the potential to advance in rank. A caveat is required at this point. The chief, the other officers, and the employees must understand that succession planning is not a form of pre-selection for a particular position, a guarantee of continued employment, or a promise of future advancement. Neither is it the opportunity for certain officers to push incompetent employees (remember the Peter principle). Officers must concentrate on identifying viable candidates with the potential to become the department's future leaders.

The obvious question is how does one identify "viable candidates with the potential to become the department's future leaders?" There are several traits and behaviors that one can observe and measure to help identify undeveloped candidates. First, start by looking at a person's basic skills. No matter what position the person holds in the organization, some basic skills include reading, understanding written instructions, following orders, the ability to write complete sentences, the ability to communicate effectively both orally and in writing, the ability to listen, the ability to understand concepts, and the ability to learn. Help the potential candidate develop those skills through supportive training, education and experience. Do not focus on developing or grooming the person for a specific position (i.e., Dennis will make a good battalion chief some day), but to be capable of maximizing their potential contributions to the organization (i.e., Dennis will be a good leader some day).

When evaluating an employee, look for broad traits, not specific actions. Do not look for the best nozzle man, best driver, best battalion chief, etc., but look for employees who have the ability to adapt and grow. The fire service needs leaders who can work within organizations that are dynamic, changeable, and indefinite. Some specific traits to look for include the following.

Leadership potential: Look for people who have demonstrated the ability to be responsible for others, take charge of a situation, who other employees look to as a positive role model, and have the ability to motivate others.

Receptive to feedback: No one likes to be criticized, but some people are more receptive to feedback than others are. Look for people who do not become defensive or argumentative when corrected or counseled. Look for employees who engage in a two-way dialogue when receiving feedback. Look for employees who receive feedback and grow and improve from the feedback. Sir Winston Churchill said it best: "Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."

Ability to learn: This is the ability to, when exposed to new concepts, ideas, knowledge, etc., understand and retain the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to make productive use of what was learned. Learning is the ability to comprehend, not the ability to memorize something, and includes having the common sense needed to use the new knowledge properly.

Conceptual thinking: Conceptual thinking is the most important trait to look for when searching for raw potential. One can learn reading, writing and arithmetic, but conceptual thinking is an inherent ability that can best be polished through practice. Look for people who anticipate problems before they occur, who have the ability to define a problem and identify the obvious and unseen causes, recognize alternative solutions and choose the best ones, develop a plan to solve the problem, have the ability to set priorities, and the ability to handle several problems at the same time.

Adaptability: In the fire service, the ability to adapt is a survival skill when fighting a fire. One must be able to improvise, adapt and overcome many fire ground problems in order to safely and effectively resolve the emergency at hand. This skill is also important when dealing with the many problems that surface in managing and leading any organization. Look for people who have the ability to stay cool under pressure, the ability deal with uncertainty, the ability to recover when "Plan A" does not work out. Whymark and Ellis (1999) note that, "It is clear that future career prospects will depend increasingly on a willingness and ability to both learn and unlearn, develop and change."

Agility: Closely related to adaptability is agility. Adaptability is ability to change while agility is the speed and ease at which one can change. Being able to go to Plan B is adaptability. Being able to go to Plan B quickly and efficiently is agility.

Results oriented: Look for someone who focuses on the destination and is not hampered by the path needed to get there. Look for someone who understands the organization's goals and objectives and who focuses his or her efforts on achieving those goals. Do not look for someone with a "win at all costs" attitude, but look for a person who works for the good of the organization, can work independently, and has the skills needed to work as a member of a team. Results oriented employees understand that they are responsible for their own career development and are committed to making this happen.

Fits the corporate culture: This last trait is the second most important trait. Generally, corporate culture is slow to change, and a good leader with conceptual thinking skills and the ability to adapt can change when the corporate culture changes. However, do not waste time on someone who is out of touch with the organization's culture. If such people cannot work with their peers at the shift level, they will never be able to adapt at the command and administration level.

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