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It’s Time for Federal Agencies to Re-Define Succession Planning

Patrick Devlin

Senior Vice President, Fishtree

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "the times they are a-changin’." Baby boomers are retiring in droves. Millennials are taking on increasing responsibilities while demanding new ways of working. Federal government agency missions are evolving faster than a New York minute. Taken together, it’s easy to see just how dramatic the government workforce transformation really is.

With this in mind, Cornerstone OnDemand partnered with Worldwide Business Research (WBR) to survey government agency executives at the Human Capital Management for Government (HCMG) conference last autumn; full survey results can be viewed here.

The feedback we received from federal government human capital executives raises many red flags around how agencies are engaging their workforces and developing future agency leaders. Survey findings demonstrate agencies lack a unified succession planning strategy, do not align their program investments to support human capital priorities, and operate in a culture steeped in outdated ways of addressing agency jobs and employee engagement. It is clear that agencies are neither preparing their workforces for the mission demands of tomorrow, nor putting steps in place to address the short-term challenges such as managing staff turnover, identifying high-potential employees and filling leadership voids.

Yesterday’s Approaches to Tomorrow’s Challenges

With 63 percent of respondents stating that their agency’s succession planning initiatives are not successful, the survey clearly reveals that federal agencies are not adequately preparing employees to step into roles of increasing responsibilities and to be the next generation of agency leadership. So, why are succession planning initiatives failing? After all, these same respondents identified their top three current human capital priorities to be identifying and closing skills gaps, recruiting needed talent and staff training and development – all elements of a succession planning strategy. Why the disconnect? What’s not working?

For starters, let’s define succession planning. The old-school way of approaching succession planning meant, when Director Smith is ready to retire or move into a new role at the agency, Deputy Director Jones will be ready to take his or her place. This is an incredibly literal interpretation of the word "succession" that is too narrowly focused, and no longer relevant for today’s agency work. Succession planning today must be a workforce issue, not an individual issue.

Unfortunately, it is clear that many federal agencies remain attached to old ways of thinking about succession planning – ways that do little to engage and build the skills of a workforce to prepare future agency leaders. In order to have a successful succession planning strategy, agencies need to think beyond the individual worker to the broader workforce and whether or not they posses the skills and competencies needed to meet mission requirements. It’s the workforce that needs to be ready to meet future agency demands – not only an individual.

Redefining Succession Planning

Simply put: it’s the work, not the job. It’s the workforce, not a person.

Succession planning is about growing and preparing the workforce to be leaders – from those just out of college beginning their careers, to those middle managers with a decade or more under their belts, all the way to career civil servants. Succession planning develops the workforce of the future to meet the demands of the work of the future.

So forget about job openings, organizational charts and specifically defined roles and responsibilities. Agencies need to understand the nature of the work that needs to be conducted by the workforce and the corresponding skills, competencies, knowledge and experiences that are required of employees to successfully do that work. Once this is understood, agencies can foster their talent, build competencies, and identify and groom people to fill roles and meet mission – today’s and tomorrow’s.

That is what succession planning needs to look like today. It’s a cultural shift, for sure – but a much needed one. After all, when 80 percent of survey respondents said that the greatest impediment to achieving their human capital goals, apart from budget, was the management culture of their organizations, it’s clear a change is long overdue.

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