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Your Professional Legacy Begins (and Ends) with a Succession Plan

Jan. 1, 2008
If you plan appropriately, you'll have a constant flow of motivated people who are prepared to fill key positions in the future (including yours)

Searching for the new you won't be the easiest thing you've ever done, but the payoffs are well worth the effort - and creating a succession plan will help you get there. You've probably established a business continuity plan to keep your building going in the event of an emergency: Think of a succession plan as business continuity for your team (to keep them going when you're not around). By mapping out what will happen when you retire, you'll minimize loss of knowledge and set your staff up for success when you exit.

If you're not one of the 60 million Baby Boomers getting ready to leave the workforce in the next 15 years, don't think that you can't benefit from a succession plan - you can. Ken Wilson, director at Raleigh, NC-based FMI Corp., recommends that you start thinking about succession as soon as you take the job. It's a continuous process that will identify the new roles and resources needed in the coming years, recognize and cultivate potential in your staff, and offer a strategy to cope with sudden departures.

Step 1: Take a Look Around

As is customary no matter what you're working on, the easiest way to get started with a succession plan is to see if someone else has done it before. "[If] a facility [professional] is working within the context of a larger organization, he/she should see if there's anything going on internally before they start to develop their own plans. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to," advises Meredith Thatcher, president at Ottawa, ON-based Carroll Thatcher Planning Group Inc.

Ask around - maybe the IT director or the accounting higher-ups have created plans for their own departments. Give HR a call to discuss it as well. They might have a model you can work with or may be able to point you to someone who has done it already.

Use your network to scope out help, too. Is there anyone you know from an industry association or professional development course who might be in a similar situation? Connect with them to see what they've done.

Step 2: Build a Team (If You Need One)

Unless you're working for a relatively small organization with a small department, you'll probably do best if you have a small group to help you plan and that can weigh in with opinions. "That team should consist of your senior executives, a representative from human resources, and one or two representatives from your client population, who usually have a pretty good perspective on your staff - sometimes better than you do," says Stormy Friday, president at Annapolis, MDbased The Friday Group.

Step 3: Get Buy-In at All Levels

Obviously, buy-in is important. You don't want to spend a year putting together what you think is the perfect succession plan and then find out that upper management (or your board of directors) isn't supportive of the way you went about it, the people you selected, etc.

After you've been open with upper management about your plans (and they're on board), be straightforward with other people as well. "Succession planning requires active participation of those leaving, those taking their place, and those being promoted upward," says Thatcher.

When the plan isn't kept a secret, "one of the key advantages is that people can look to the organization and say, ‘There is a level playing field - a system in place - so that we can understand what the rules are if we want to get ahead,' " says Thomas J. Hand, consultant at Dayton, OH-based TJ Hand Facility Management Solutions. "It establishes the rules for success." When everyone being considered is expected to meet certain standards, there's less room for chitchat about whether or not people are playing favorites (or playing fair).

Letting your team know about the succession plan also allows talented employees to realize that there will be future opportunities, which may keep them from going elsewhere. As Wilson points out, in the war for talent, you don't want someone else stealing your superstars.

Step 4: Do Some Job Analysis

Put together a thorough explanation of your job (not just as it exists in your personnel file, but as you'd really describe it) and then sketch out the necessary characteristics of the person who will take your spot. The list you just created is what you'll use as a guide to coach your group and pick out the top performers.

Even though your job is probably the one you're most worried about filling, take advantage of this occasion to do an across-the-board examination, conducting a position analysis for each spot on your team. "You have an opportunity to look, starting at the bottom of the organization and working up to your own position, at your [department] and see if there are people who have the option of leaving within a certain time period, at the talent within [your] organization, and [at] your potential pool of candidates," explains Friday. Map out job descriptions as they really exist, calling on your staff to fill in the missing info when necessary. Wilson recommends developing a grid that identifies positions down the left-hand side; extending out to the right, identify current staff and future needs. You can also identify individuals for each position and their skill sets, tenure, and retirement eligibility.

Think about how those people fit into their current roles and into other positions on your staff. Think of your team as a moving, interchangeable group ... if someone leaves, is there someone else who could step up? Profiling and analyzing your employees in the same way you've profiled and analyzed the positions will help paint a picture of what you have in house (and what you don't).

Now, think about this: In a perfect world, what types of people would fill each role? Think about your dream team (maybe it's your current staff, or maybe it's not) and who it would include if you were able to select an idyllic person for each position (doing this will uncover weaknesses and gaps in current skill sets). Someone with astonishing people skills? Someone who knows your lighting system inside and out? Someone who can crunch numbers in his (or her) sleep?

"What it really comes down to is doing a gap analysis: What are the positions and roles [you're] trying to fill or [that you] will need to fill or create? It may be that the position doesn't exist now, but you know you're going there," says Thatcher. Forecast the needs/gaps you'll have over the next 1 to 10 years (considering what you might face with retirement, normal attrition, etc.); factor in any strategic growth objectives that will change the list of required abilities and skill sets.

Step 5: Wade through the Sea of Possibilities

You may have five people on your team, or you may have 500 (or more). How do you know who's ready, willing, and able to fill your shoes (or someone else's)? The first step is to ask those who are interested in promotion to indicate so (hopefully, people anxious to move up have already told you about their professional goals).

If there are employees who have the appropriate skills, you may want to approach them to casually gauge their interest in future opportunities. As Hand recommends, ask for résumés from your staff members to learn about skills they have that you may not know about.

To start, Hand advises that you assess past performance reviews, current skills, education, personality, and communication skills. Interview the candidates to learn about their interests, their strengths/weaknesses, etc. He also says that conducting psychological assessments (such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® or the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory) to gauge personality types, problem-solving styles, decision-making skills, etc. can help narrow the selection.

Thatcher recommends looking for respected team builders who are good planners, results oriented, and comfortable with risk. "There are a couple of areas [in which] facility managers are certainly challenged, and [one is] their ability to communicate," she says. "Can they do presentations? Can they speak appropriately, depending on the level and type of person they're speaking to? Are they using appropriate terms; do they understand the impact of those words?"

Also, take note of the candidates' relationships with colleagues, clients (building tenants/occupants), superiors, etc. Bad relationships can be hard (but not impossible) to rebuild. Ask those they interact with about their pleasantness and responsiveness, what interactions with them are normally like, etc.

Depending on the position and what it requires, you'll have to look at technical and behavioral skills, according to Thatcher. You might rank communication and problem-solving skills higher than technical skills specific to certain tasks: First-rate communication skills are much harder to impart than system-specific responsibilities. Looking strictly at technical skills can also be shortsighted. Someone with an exhaustive knowledge of a certain task or system won't be of much help when you consider the fact that those tasks or systems will most likely be different in 10 years.

How do you evaluate what you discover about your staff throughout this process? "Put together some kind of scoring criteria [for] the job. You might have knowledge, skills, and abilities [listed], and four or five critical factors against which you're going to [grade] the potential talent pool," says Friday.

Step 6: Put Possible Candidates to the Test

After you've narrowed it down considerably, how do you pick the best of the best? Challenge the candidates and their skills to see how they respond.

"Put them into [safe] situations (where you're not going to lose an account if they lead a meeting and it goes poorly, for example). If we have a weekly call or we have meetings with clients, I'll tend to put somebody different on point each time and see how they do," explains Karen Krackov, regional senior vice president, Grubb & Ellis Management Services Inc., Washington, D.C. "A lot of it isn't day-to-day training - it's how you react in a situation."

An uncommon (but useful) way to help you identify differences between the candidates involves creating a mini team to temporarily handle your responsibilities. You'll be there to advise, but let them call the shots, and watch how they make decisions and solve problems - it will help build skill and accountability. Even for those who aren't ultimately chosen for your position, this experience will be great for them. They'll have a taste of what a higher-level position is like and it'll give them a leg up when other opportunities surface.

Or, try assigning some of your difficult tasks to the up-andcomers. Although it might be hard for you to let go, a successful succession plan requires it. "Put possible successors into a position of risk and give them the opportunity to make mistakes. Don't say, ‘They can take over when I'm done.' The person who's leaving - whether they're retiring, moving on to another job, [or] getting promoted - sometimes has to give the other person not only the risk, but also the glory," says Thatcher. "If you've done it well, [the transition] usually happens a whole lot faster than the person leaving wants it to - it can be quite shocking for them."

Step 7: Don't Forget About It

Succession planning is never really finished, even once you've chosen your successor. After you've picked the next you, you have to find a way to pass on what you know (more about that in 6 Ways to Groom Your Successor).

From this point forward, you (or your replacement, if you're leaving in the next year) should evaluate needs and resources at least yearly (but probably more often). Add new candidates to the list who might be able to take over a high-level position and revisit the possibility of retirements, promotions, etc.

"Every time we pick up a new building or a new employee is when I think about it again," says Krackov. "I'm also thinking ‘succession planning' every time I interview someone new." After all, if there is no succession planning process, how will you guarantee that qualified people will move up and take over when the existing staff retires or advances? A well-orchestrated succession plan ensures a flow of motivated, ready-to-go people who are prepared to step into crucial positions.

Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is senior associate editor at Buildings magazine.


6 Ways to Groom Your Successor

“There is, in our profession, a serious void in succession planning or the ability to do that. Just by the nature of what we do and how our organizations are structured, we don’t have very good career progression established.” – Buck Fisher, Senior Manager of Facilities Services, SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC
“Succession planning is not always paramount in the facility professional’s psyche. It is usually something way at the bottom of the list until some key employee is suddenly leaving and everyone asks, ‘What do we do?’ It’s treated more as reactive as opposed to proactive.” – Greg Donato, Professional Associate, Facilitate Consulting LLC, New York City
“What you would look for in a successor would be a sense of judgment. You can teach people certain skills, but you have to rely on them to be a person that can judge priorities.”– Kathy Roper, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology’s Building Construction Program, Atlanta
“Nuts and bolts, I can outsource: I’m trying to bring in a managerial person – somebody who can handle people.”
– Bob Berninzoni, Former Facilities Plant Operations Manager, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA

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