Back to the Mar-Apr 2020 issue

Succession Planning and the Hunt for Talent

By Kris Norman-Major And Craig Waldron

Illustration. "We Want You!"

Succession planning and the hunt for talent in our organizations are two activities that are — and will forever be — intertwined.

We are clearly facing a challenge as we seek to find qualified individuals to fill the critical positions baby boomers are leaving open as they exit the workforce.

Some estimates place this employee deficit at 239,000.

Three approaches

Here are some approaches to succession planning and talent growth that may make sense at certain periods of time:

1. Have an emergency plan for key personnel. If a key leader has to unexpectedly leave his or her position, the organization needs to have a plan about who will move into that position to “keep the lights on” in the immediate future.

2. Develop a clear step-by-step plan in terms of who moves up within your organization when various retirements occur.

3. Build your own talent from within and have a strong bench of people that you can move around and move up into key positions when needed.

While all three approaches are helpful, there can be drawbacks to relying on the first two alone. Of course, an organization has to be prepared to meet an emergency situation, but that type of plan is limited to current staffing and not future looking.

A step-by-step plan for succession, while possible to outline, can be thwarted by those in line being recruited by another community or finding other work. It is within this context that we recommend growing your own talent as the primary approach to succession planning.

Initial planning

Regardless of which approach or approaches you choose, the first step is for elected officials, city managers, and department heads to start a succession conversation. That process can be more difficult than you might envision.

These discussions might lead to questions like, “Are they trying to get rid of me?” or “Are you leaving us?” Make it clear this is about the health and sustainability of the organization, not individual employees.

As a second step, it is invaluable to develop documentation about critical positions. Creating this documentation will involve a discussion with staff members to make sure important organizational intelligence is obtained and retained.

The documentation should include what skills are needed for this position, what critical knowledge is required, who the key contacts are, what other organizations are important to work with, and a proper update of the job description.

Develop your own talent

Beyond these steps, the approach of developing your own talent is key. This approach not only helps assure succession planning in your organization, but it helps continue to build the pool of public servants we will need moving forward.

To find new talent, organizational leaders might do some of the following:

  • Work with local schools on youth in government initiatives such advisory boards or youth representation on committees.
  • Offer internships to college students.
  • Build relationships with schools that have programs in public administration and public service—they are a great talent pool.

Be a teaching organization

Once you have access to and hire new talent, including interns, be a teaching and development organization. Let employees know you will work with them to help build the skills needed to move up in the organization and into leadership positions over time if desired.

This approach has been used and found to be beneficial in the City of Oakdale, where officials developed a 12-point emerging leaders program that entailed the following for new employees:

  • Assign challenging tasks to push their skills and talents.
  • Have them practice giving presentations; this will fine tune their public speaking skills.
  • Debrief them after any significant event.
  • Diversify their skills and knowledge of the organization.
  • Constantly mentor and coach them.
  • Improve supervisors’ coaching methods and make sure they are held accountable.
  • Develop mutually beneficial relationships with them.
  • Motivate them to constantly stretch their abilities.
  • Share responsibility and help them learn from their mistakes.
  • Give them interim leadership responsibilities to help build confidence.
  • Maintain direction through constant performance reviews.
  • Put them in contact with different commissions, boards, and elected officials.

The ensuing years are going to be extremely challenging with respect to succession and the hunt for talent. Cities that start succession conversations early and builds their own talent will have more success in the future.

Kris Norman-Major is director of public administration programs and Craig Waldron is an adjunct professor at the Hamline University School of Business ( Hamline is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (