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Behind every student and high-profile academic at a higher education institution is a team of dedicated professionals committed to their school’s excellence and success. These hundreds or even thousands of staff members fill roles and responsibilities that extend far beyond classroom walls – from finance to admissions, human resources to IT, operations to athletics.

It goes without saying that institutions recognize the value of their talent and the many important roles these employees play – but with a large wave of baby boomer retirements and other unplanned staff turnover hitting higher education, many schools have recognized that they are behind on succession planning initiatives. Institutions are asking themselves, Who will lead our teams, departments and other organizations in the future? Are we doing enough (or anything) to prepare staff for evolving work requirements and job demands? Are we going to be all right?

Making Succession Planning a Priority

Two executives at the University of Scranton shared their observations with Inside Higher Ed about succession planning within their CIO organization, after the department head moved on to a new opportunity. Long before the CIO’s departure, the team had taken the steps to identify core competencies and prepare staff to assume broader responsibilities. When faced with an executive departure, business was able to continue as usual, thanks to their proactive strategic succession planning efforts.

The experience of this one department at the University of Scranton is unique, as higher education institutions struggle with the concept of succession planning and how to make it a priority. In fact, I would wager that when asked to define “succession planning”, the leadership at higher education institutions would default to the older, traditional way of thinking – that Person B will replace Person A upon his or her retirement or departure. Or, perhaps it represents the process of putting together a search committee to find a new job candidate after an executive-level departure.

Looking To the Next Generation (Focus on the Work)

These views on succession planning are shortsighted, and are no longer relevant for how the business of higher education is conducted. As with most other industries, higher education workforces are multi-generational, more collaborative, less focused on titles and hierarchy while increasingly focused on the competencies and skills required from a team to drive the department and the institution’s mission forward. The work (and how we do the work) is changing – therefore, so must the approach to succession planning.

Succession planning must look towards the emerging jobs and responsibilities of tomorrow and address how to foster the next generation of institution leadership, beyond a department head. This philosophy can be challenging – it’s easy to let the concept of a job overshadow the realities of the work. However, it is critical to understand the work that needs to be done in order for a team, department or organization to be successful – and to use this insight as the basis for succession planning.

When focusing on the work as opposed to the individual roles or jobs that make up an organization, higher education institutions can truly plan for future success. Leaders can think more broadly about the skills and competencies a workforce (as opposed to an individual) must possess and contribute across all levels of the organization. Career paths can be developed to guide employees to acquire needed skills and prepare to take on increased levels of responsibility and leadership – also aiding retention efforts, as staff will possess clearly defined growth paths, encouraging them to stay on and build their careers as opposed to looking elsewhere for new opportunities.

Building a succession planning strategy should be viewed first and foremost as an opportunity – a chance to evaluate the kind of work required by the institution; the skills, knowledge and abilities that are required to successfully perform the work; and the employees with the potential to become a part of the next generation of leadership. Employees and departments will be set up to continuously learn and adapt to changing needs. Set-in-stone job descriptions with narrowly defined sets of responsibilities no longer apply. Institutions are no longer grooming the next individual executive, but rather grooming the entire workforce to prepare for the changes, challenges and opportunities that are coming in the future.