Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Succession Planning

There’s a piece in the Chronicle berating academia for failing to do enough ‘succession planning.’ Succession planning is the practice of designating heirs apparent for positions in the food chain in advance, so internal candidates will be prepared when the time comes. It’s gaining traction in the corporate world.

There’s something to be said for good succession planning. It can act as an incentive for good people to stick around; it can be an incentive for a college to invest in professional development; it can reduce the trauma of change; it can almost guarantee short learning curves; it can preserve institutional memory and continuity; and it can reduce the likelihood of change for change’s sake. These are not to be sneezed at.

Still, on a visceral level, the entire concept makes my skin crawl.

Most obviously, it’s not at all clear how succession planning and affirmative action can exist in the same universe. Affirmative action done right is about looking for candidates who don’t fit the traditional mold, but who have real strengths that could still allow them to be effective. Succession planning is very much about perpetuating the traditional mold. In practice, it’s often hard to distinguish from the old boys’ club.

Beyond that, it strikes me that greater stability is the last thing that most colleges need. By virtue of tenure and tenure-based culture, the great danger facing most colleges isn’t so much the lack of institutional memory as the trap of it. When a college is dominated by a single generational cohort that has been together for decades, the value of a fresh set of eyes is considerable. The new guy has license to ask why things are done a given way, and to arch his eyebrows at the response “because we’ve always done it that way.”

In that sense, much of traditional higher ed is very different, culturally, than much of the private sector. In the corporate world, where personnel churn is significant and sustained, a conscious decision to place a premium on stability makes sense. In the academic world, where the weight of history bears down on even the most trivial decisions, the occasional infusion of new blood is to the good.

That’s not to say that internal candidates are always a bad idea. It’s just to say that the good ones will win fair fights anyway, so why not have fair fights? Throw the searches open, and let the strongest applicants win. At my college, we’ve recently had some incredibly good internal candidates win fair fights, with the result that nobody begrudges them their new positions.

Succession planning can lead to a culture in which brown-nosing and office politics trump actual performance or ability. (In academia, we usually prefer to confine that culture to grad school.) Worse, once someone has been anointed, there’s a temptation for the anointed one to slack, and for the non-anointed to simply tune out. Neither is fair, and neither is helpful.

Professional development is great, but the goal should be to create candidates strong enough to win fair fights. Anything else is just extending the monopoly of the current group.

I had a totally different reaction to the idea of succession planning (probably because this happened to me!). What if someone is "groomed" for a position for several years, only to have something change (new administrator, shifting political winds, etc.) and then the "groomee" is no longer the obvious candidate? While it might be nice to be the front runner, nothing is ever guaranteed.

I made many mistakes but my major error was trusting that the people above me would actually follow through on their spoken promises.
I hear ya. I've been the dark horse candidate, and it was a major pain to have to overcome the 'presumptive favorite' to get a position. It caused tension all around, on both my end and hers. Had no premature promises been made, there still might have been competition, but it wouldn't have been nearly as tense.
Succession planning is almost certainly a bad idea.

But what's an even worse idea is not to do any substantive professional development, to create an environment in which there are essentially no potentially viable internal candidates for administrative positions. (This is whay my institution has done, up to the last year or so.)
I would argue that more succession planning needs to happen on the staff side of things for heads of groups and departments. There's a lot of turnover at the lower levels primarily because there seems to be no career path available. Often, positions are created for someone to move into, but it's not open so those of us who might be interested in it can't apply.
A better idea is to have interim people in mind (who are therefore kept more or less in the loop in case of problems), but to have a clear and well-defined process for replacements in the long term, so everyone knows what's going on. The interim people should probably rotate in and out; this gives you a chance to give a little management training to a lot of people and pass out a lot of good information.
I'd like to object to the idea that succession planning is in opposition to affirmative action -- it just has to start at a lower level. Why shouldn't it be the case that a diverse group of faculty candidates are developed so that they will be competitive?

The devil in me does like to see the old gaurd put on their toes by a new senior administrator -- it has happened this year at my CC, and one good thing about it is that overall, faculty are on a more even playing field with the new senior administrator. This wouldn't have been the case with succession planning as explained above.
I have had really successful experiences with succession planning, but they weren't in an academic setting, so the culture was a bit different. In one case, I applied for and took a human services job (non-profit sector) where I was the only paid staff person on my team and supervised about 40 volunteers. I came in from outside, and it took a long time to learn the ropes of this organization, even though I had lots of experience in the field. I set up a program of "leadership" volunteers who I would meet with regularly and discuss what was going on in the program, often getting their input. When it came time for me to move on, one of these people expressed interest in taking over, and since she had been performing well, I groomed her for about four months before my departure. It worked like a charm!

I didn't think about it not working from an affirmative action perspective, but mostly because the groomee came from a rank of volunteers, for whom there are no barriers preventing entry (other than their own time and effort), so maybe it would be a bit different in a more insular place like higher ed.

I just wanted to provide a story of how well it can work. Maybe it could also work in a university or college if it starts at an early level like _inside the philosophy factory_ said.
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