A New Angle on Succession Planning
|While succession planning has not always been readily embraced by many colleges and universities, at Virginia Tech we are working to build, implement, and integrate a formal succession management program for the entire university. With retirements at our institution projected at an annual rate of 12 percent over the next six years, the recruitment of new employees and the development of current employees have become even more critical. To meet our challenge, we have created a plan to develop employees earlier in their careers and provide for their continuous and ongoing professional development throughout the ranks of the institution.||
Succession Management Objectives
Through Virginia Tech’s Office of University Organizational and Professional Development (UOPD) within our department of human resources, we developed a succession management strategy to serve the academic and administrative sides of the university with the following objectives:
- Develop a clear vision of leadership strengths and development needs.
- Provide learning opportunities at all levels of the university in a structured, comprehensive, and deliberate manner.
- Plan for the succession of our management team, focusing initially on positions identified as critical and with the potential for turnover within two years.
- Develop bench strength internally to prepare future leaders.
- Hone specific skills in key areas.
- Build a network of colleagues and peer support.
- Improve the quality of leadership within specific units.
The intent of our succession management program is not to create a replacement planning program (i.e., identifying a person for a specific position) or to eliminate external recruiting activity. Rather, our goal is to ensure that the same standards we apply externally for potential employees are the same standards we hold internally for developing current employees.
The Executive Development Institute
A key aspect of our solution was the creation of our Executive Development Institute. The EDI, which we launched in 2008, is a seven-month intensive development program for senior leaders to mid-level directors. The overall program has a specific focus on curriculum that addresses what UOPD identified through benchmarking and national comparison studies as current leadership gaps and the specific talent we need as an institution moving forward to ensure that Virginia Tech’s leaders remain successful. The institute runs annually from November through May. During these months, participants (whom we call scholars) are required to meet on site for a total of four two-day seminars. The program selects approximately 22 individuals annually.
The curriculum for the first seminar centers on leadership awareness. As part of this seminar, scholars are asked to complete a 360 benchmark survey. The second and third seminars focus on organizational awareness, during which scholars learn more about the nuts and bolts of Virginia Tech—how we function fiscally and legally, our general governance structure, and how to structure and deliver leadership communications. The fourth and final seminar focuses on the larger university community, including understanding the components of diversity and inclusion. Threaded through the on-site sessions are distance learning opportunities with deans, vice presidents, and our communication and university relations department. These sessions are held on campus but are recorded as webcasts for individuals who are not located in Blacksburg or are unable to attend.
Scholars are also grouped in teams during the on-site seminars to complete an action learning case study. The goal of these case studies is to allow participants an opportunity to grapple with important challenges specific to higher education. Scholars learn to apply analytical tools and formal knowledge to challenges they choose surrounding a human resource, communication, financial, or technology-related issue. Each team is assigned a group coach from our academic faculty to help balance tasks, processes, and action with reflection and learning. Because the case-study experiences are grounded in real-life organizational issues, this pushes scholars to apply what they’ve learned in the curriculum in a practical manner.
The team case-study approach also generates a collaborative learning environment. In general, scholars accepted into the program represent a good cross section of individuals from among the university’s colleges and administrative areas. Likewise, the action learning case-study teams are mixed to foster interaction with others outside their own department or college. This allows for a richer learning experience as participants are encouraged to see the challenge they select through the lens of different administrative and academic areas of the institution, providing a more holistic view. The value for participants is learning firsthand about the diverse implementation challenges facing organizations, a process that leads to improved management and leadership skills.
At the end of their first year of the program, EDI scholars present their team findings and recommendations to members of Virginia Tech’s senior leadership team. Specific projects have ranged from how to address academic bullying to developing a performance management toolkit. To date, 44 Virginia Tech employees have graduated from the program.
Graduation from the EDI program does not mean scholars are done. The next step is for EDI program scholars to take what they learned during the first year of the program and apply it in their respective areas by identifying two to three goals they will work on for the following seven months. UOPD assists scholars by identifying mentoring groups to work with them to achieve their specific goals and activities. Typically goals are specific to the individual’s development within their department or college. During this phase, UOPD assigns mentors specific to the completion of each goal identified by the scholar. Scholars are required to submit a progress report halfway through this phase, with a final report due at the end that reflects activities and outcomes.
Nomination Process and Target Audience
The EDI targets positions with the titles of assistant/associate vice president, director, assistant director, assistant/associate dean, department chair, and assistant/associate department chair. All nominations are made to the institute by a university vice president or a dean. Nominators are required to score nominees against a rubric designed by UOPD to assess the following core leadership competencies: valuing and managing diversity; dealing with and developing people; management decision making; strategic thinking and creativity; and personal values, including ethics and trust. All nominations are submitted with a leadership rubric, nominee application, letter of intent from the nominee, a resume, and letter of support by the nominator. Nominees are notified of their acceptance and invited to a welcome reception by Virginia Tech’s president.
Developing Talent Beyond the Senior Leadership Level
UOPD is aware that the university’s succession planning approach can’t focus solely on the development of senior leadership. We have to groom employees at all levels, as well as provide professional development opportunities for those not selected for EDI. To address this need, we created a series of certificate programs that can be taken by any employee regardless of his or her classification. We offer certificate programs in leadership excellence, customer service, office software skills, and administrative excellence. To complete their chosen certificate, participants are required to take two core offerings and choose three optional offerings. Our certificate programs are listed in the diagram below along with some of our annual professional development offerings that are designated as core offerings for the certificate programs. Currently all classes are facilitated face-to-face.
University Organizational and Professional Development certificate programs and classroom course offerings at Virginia Tech.
Another option provided by UOPD to foster a more holistic approach to succession management is our periodic review process for senior-level administrators. The process is driven by an institutional policy requiring that senior-level administrators be reviewed every five years. (A similar process is in place for Virginia Tech’s academic deans and department chairs.) Our senior-level administrators are required to take a 360 evaluation (the 360 Educator’s Profile) and share the results with their supervisors. This process identifies areas of focus to create an individual development plan for each participant. Participants not only receive feedback, but they also map out how they will work on their developmental items. In addition, participants must identify activities for accomplishing their goals and report actual due dates through UOPD’s online goal-setting tool, which allows them to explain how goals were accomplished. UOPD monitors all online entries and updates. Each participant’s immediate supervisor is given viewing access and the ability to send notes and suggestions to their direct reports.
The review process extends over a period of five months. Participants are required to attend workshops that focus on individual awareness, organizational change and management, and leadership development. At the end of the process, supervisors must create a formal evaluation that details the participant’s status on his or her individual development plan, progress made toward identified goals, and overall work performance.
Building Bench Strength
Despite a slowly recovering economy, at colleges and universities across the nation there is a renewed sense of urgency to attract, engage, and retain key talent. Especially in times of great fiscal turbulence, succession management programs like the ones we have launched at Virginia Tech provide opportunities for employees at all levels to develop their skills and enhance their knowledge base in preparation for greater responsibilities. University investment in these talent development programs reinforces the commitment by Virginia Tech’s board of visitors, president, provost, deans and vice presidents, and department heads across the institution to being a learning organization not only for students, but for faculty and staff as well.
Mekeisha Williams is executive director of University Organizational and Professional Development at Virginia Tech; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Virginia Tech’s professional and leadership development programs, visit the UOPD Web site: http://www.uopd.vt.edu.
Executive Development Institute (EDI) Cohort, 2009-2010