Welles: Successful succession planning

Be prepared by matching talented employees to leaders before those leaders depart.

Back in February, I wrote about the baby boomer retirement wave of federal employees, which is expected to occur from 2008 to 2010. The Office of Personnel Management said the wave will peak a couple of years later for information technology workers. With that in mind, OPM Director Linda Springer said that IT managers must focus on succession planning.


She also said agency chief human capital officers should be conducting risk assessments to determine which employees are most likely to retire and how their absence would affect the organization. Rather than waiting for an employee to leave, plan ahead.

“Start mentoring and get people paired to capture knowledge,” she said. “We need to look within and groom people to move up.”

Since that column was published, I have received e-mail messages from concerned employees about the impact of succession planning on older workers. An attorney at the Department of Veterans Affairs wrote that succession planning, at least in the federal sector, generates age-based discrimination complaints.

“Any supervisor who gives favorable assignments to younger employees as part of staff development will be hit with EEO complaints,” the attorney wrote.

Neither the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission nor the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) has reported any formal complaints related to succession planning.

“It is unlawful to make employment decisions affecting people’s jobs or careers based on age,” said James Ryan, a spokesman for the commission.

Yet the perception of discrimination exists. Steve Nelson, the MSPB’s policy director, said, “Succession planning is often focused on top leadership when we need to be looking at critical skill areas at all levels.”

Marta Brito Perez, associate director of human capital leadership and merit system accountability at OPM, said, “Succession planning has nothing to do with age. Succession planning is just identifying high-risk jobs and how to fill them.”

OPM created a five-phase model for succession planning. The first step is to link succession to the agency mission. With the mission in mind, managers determine the kinds of talents they need. The next step is to identify retirement trends and compare those trends with the talent needed. Which skills will be lacking and which skills will remain?

A skills-gap analysis leads to a succession strategy. Managers need to identify whether talent that can be further developed already exists in their organization or whether new employees need to be hired.

“There is ample opportunity to create a succession strategy that includes midcareer people, regardless of age,” Perez said.

She added that OPM has assigned human capital officers to each agency to evaluate succession plans and provide feedback. “It’s not enough to just have a plan in place,” she said. “We want to see people promoted or hired from that plan.”

Springer advises employees who want to advance to take charge of their future. “Take responsibility for your own career. Let managers know if you are interested in stretch assignments or training. If you encounter problems, contact your HR office, and if necessary, you have the option to file a grievance.”

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.