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The Federal Coach: Will You Be Ready When Your Leaders Hit the Road?

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This column was originally published on the Washington Post On Leadership site.

Staff turnover is as inevitable as death and taxes, and for government it looms on the horizon. According to the Office of Personnel Management projections, by the end of 2015 more than 50 percent of the 7,746 senior executives in place at the beginning of 2011 will have left government.

As these executives leave their agencies, they will take with them key institutional knowledge and critical skills, resulting in a brain drain that could have dire consequences for our government and its ability to project the public's health, safety and security.

So, how can federal managers prepare for this looming brain drain? The answer lies in succession planning -- the process of projecting vacancies, evaluating talent to fill those vacancies, and then developing strategies for training staff or recruiting new talent as needed.

The hard part comes in finding the time, resources and data to effectively develop succession plans. To help overcome these barriers, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, published a report last week with Booz Allen Hamilton, which outlines a five-step approach to succession planning for federal managers:

1. List critical positions and project vacancy risk. To start, create a succession-planning committee of senior executives who can identify and evaluate which positions are most critical to the ongoing success of your agency. The committee should consider senior management roles as well as technical roles, and should assess the likelihood of these positions becoming vacant within the next few years due to retirements, operational changes or any other risk factor.

2. Discuss future needs. Predicting staff turnover for the next three to five years can be difficult, but as a federal manager it's important to prepare for the long-term needs of your agency and team. To do so, consider future team functions and activities and any factors that might affect how your team achieves its results.

3. Analyze gaps in the existing talent pool. Within your agency and on your team, you have employees who are looking to advance their careers and possibly move into leadership positions. Using well-established criteria, your succession-planning committee can evaluate employees, assess their readiness to lead, and determine whether your agency has any immediate successors for a given job or whether another solution is needed.

4. Develop strategies to close the gaps. A number of approaches can help close the gaps be­tween the existing workforce and future needs. In addition to formal training, cost-free alternatives include develop­mental assignments, cross-training, job rotations and short-term transfers to other units or agencies. It's important to avoid appearing like you're hand-picking successors, so make sure to provide open, competitive access to all employees who seek career development opportunities. It is also possible that the gaps are so substantial that it becomes more cost-effective to look outside the agency to recruit new talent.

5. Evaluate progress and revisit plans each year. This is your "lather, rinse, repeat" step. Remember, succession planning is an ongoing, fluid process that tracks employees as they continue to develop their lead­ership skills. Ideally, succession plans should be updat­ed every 6 to 12 months or if there is a triggering event, such as a key vacancy.

In addition to more details about each step, the report includes some useful tools you can apply to succession planning in your agency. Beyond our report, I would like to hear from any readers who've been a part of -- or seen -- effective succession planning at work in a federal agency.

Please share your thoughts and ideas by posting to this site or sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.