Dec 31 2009

Succession Success

A plan for replacing senior managers is an important tool for shaping your agency’s future.

Photo: James Kegley
Agencies must make sure that they prepare even their newest hires for possible upward promotion, OPM’s Marta Brito Perez says.

It’s frustrating when you get a song stuck in your head, especially if you’re a federal human capital official and the tune on endless loop is “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Not the Muddy Waters classic but a nightmare cover by baby boomers nearing retirement.

Succession planning has been held out as a way to dial down the threat of lost competency and skills when boomers retire or others leave the organization.

“I’d say the most critical issues facing agencies today are succession planning and knowledge management,” says Gail Lovelace, chief human capital officer (CHCO) and chief people officer at the General Services Administration.

To prepare for the possibility of losing senior members of information technology and other management staffs, the administration requires that agencies develop succession strategies. But what should these strategies include, and how should an agency go about crafting one?

A plan for keeping an agency’s IT team ready, regardless of leadership changes, demands that every agency do three things: establish development programs, create leadership talent pools, and set and meet targets for closing any competency gaps.

For strategic management of human capital as mandated in the President’s Management Agenda, “agencies are required to have succession plans,” says Marta Brito Perez, associate director of human capital leadership and merit system accountability at the Office of Personnel Management. “And we evaluate them on their progress.”

Development First

The tough part is creating a plan while people are heading for the door. For example, in December, GSA’s Lovelace “lost several staff members who had as much as 30 years’ experience each.”

Such a situation speaks to the first item on the PMA mandate: “How do I recruit new people, and how do I retain the knowledge that those staffers had accumulated over 30 years in the business?” Lovelace asks. “Our knowledge–capture options are not very good.”

Development programs are essential. An IT organization must assess its current employees and weigh their strengths and skills so they can be groomed for movement up the management chain, says Yves Lermusiaux, president of Taleo Research, a division of HR software developer Taleo of San Francisco.

Perez notes that agencies must make sure that they prepare even their newest hires for possible upward promotion, which requires capturing and sharing the institutional knowledge of senior and longtime officials.

But GSA’s Lovelace says knowledge transfer isn’t an area where IT can help as much as human interaction. “For this kind of thing, a one-on-one relay of information is more effective than IT,” she says.

“In knowledge management, we are not as far along as I’d like us to be,” Perez concedes. “We need more programs like the Housing and Urban Development Department’s Operation Brain Trust,” a mentor initiative that brings together experienced managers and newer employees.

Filling the Pool

The second tier of the effort follows on the development aspect. By mentoring and grooming entry- and mid-level IT managers, agencies can create a corps of future tech leaders, Lermusiaux says.

In this, government has a leg up on the private sector in workforce planning because “the skills that will be needed in government are relatively predictable — what the government does and the volume typically vary less than in the private sector,” he says.

Conventional succession planning has its limits, Lermusiaux says. “Typically, it deals only with the top 5 percent — the organization’s leaders. You have to think of internal mobility as a whole.”

To that end, Lovelace says she encourages employees to work in every area possible, not just the one or two they have special interest in. “Learning firsthand is the best way,” she says.

It’s a concept that the intelligence community is also embracing. One way the agency is trying to create “one team, one culture is through staff rotation among agency components as a requirement for promotion to senior levels,” says Ronald P. Sanders, the National Intelligence Department’s CHCO. It’s a tough challenge for DNI because the new organization is made up of 16 agencies and six departments for which “sharing has been problematic.”

The process can be more difficult when an organization is decentralized, Perez acknowledges, but help is available. “OPM has created development tools: We have a strategic leadership model, management competency models, training programs, workforce planning models — there’s a lot of guidance.”

Closing the Gaps

The third essential component of the succession strategy demands that agencies identify skill deficiencies and then establish training plans to eliminate them. For IT shops, this effort dovetails with separate, ongoing initiatives to spot and fill systems and management shortfalls. [See FedTech November 2005, and FedTech August 2005.]

All agencies “are required to assess their mission-critical occupations and leadership and to have a strategy to ensure they can meet those needs,” Perez says. “And 34 percent of agencies have reduced or eliminated competency gaps in their mission-critical occupations.”

IT has been a targeted occupation and the focus of efforts of CIO Council career development programs and the IT Exchange Program, which lets federal and industry IT professionals swap jobs for up to three months.

IT can also help in the broader picture when creating succession strategies, says Jeff Pon, CHCO and director of the Office of Human Capital Management at the Energy Department. “IT is the lantern on the stern for us, letting us see where we’ve been so we can compare it to where we need to be,” Pon says.

Thinking About Tomorrow

OPM is spearheading a governmentwide drive to identify career patterns that will tell agencies where their employees of tomorrow might be today. “We need to use that and market government so we attract precisely those individuals,” Perez says.

In a recent study, she says, “we found that 94 percent of government employees are in traditional career modes. We want to change that.”

Agencies have powerful, if underused, tools to do that, she says, including teleworking, flexible hours and other new career options. “We need to cast as wide a net as possible. Our goal is to open up government so that everyone, wherever they are, can see themselves as a possible government employee.”