By Marc Revere
Published Friday, July 6, 2012
Let’s start off with a few questions: What provides your agency with the greatest return on investment (ROI)—developing your replacement, or developing your replacement’s replacement?
Next, given that organizations run based on their members’ strengths, do you purposefully leverage and develop their secondary strengths? Or do you focus on individual weaknesses? Finally, are the terms “succession planning” and “succession management” synonymous?
In a 2009 Applied Research Project (ARP) written by Division Chief Forrest Craig entitled “Succession Management,” the author reports that he asked respondents to describe the distinction between succession planning and succession management. Of the respondents, 97 answered the question and 24 skipped it altogether. Responses varied greatly from “not sure” to “they are one and the same.” But are they?
The process of “identifying and developing internal members with the potential to fill key leadership positions” is a classic definition of succession planning. This process increases the availability of capable members who are prepared to assume greater leadership roles. But what position(s) should you be concerned about filling, and who should be targeted for development.
Succession planning typically focuses on a single person; fire commissions, boards or councils often focus on the fire chief. This role gets the most attention in the media and in the marketplace, often to the exclusion of other positions.
Chief Craig’s in-depth analysis and research take this a step further, to succession management: a deliberate and systematic effort by an organization to encourage individual advancement and ensure continuity in key positions, including management, technical and professional specialist roles.
Whereas succession planning makes provisions for the development and replacement of key people over time, succession management is much boarder, involving a holistic review of all positions of leadership, as a complex puzzle with many pieces.
Succession management considers training as the most important element in ensuring leadership continuity. The military chain of command is a good example of how a succession process can work to provide stability during a crisis. In a military unit that functions well, each person learns the job of the person ahead of them. This is done because a military unit going into combat anticipates casualties and the “succession” management of rank enables the unit to survive the loss of key personnel.
In his 2006 ICMA report “Building the Leadership Pipeline,” Robert Lavigna suggests that leaders need to master 10 key competencies:
- Knowledge outside the employee’s own department or functional area.
- Knowledge and understanding at the enterprise level.
- A broad network of relationships.
- Getting things done in government or the organization.
- Managing change.
- Managing conflict.
- Managing public relations.
- Managing the media.
- Managing employees, which includes influencing, motivating, developing and retaining talent.
- Dealing with civic service and personnel policies.
Throughout his research, Lavigna continually stresses the message that “employers must intervene deliberately” to expand their talent pool outside their traditional comfort zones.
This theme is echoed by the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee, which creates a nexus between NFPA standards, accreditation and certification programs, and academia. With the release of the IAFC’s Officer Development Handbook, the committee identified four distinct elements necessary for fire service career development:
Several years ago, the National Fire Academy (NFA) changed the prerequisites for the Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP). In very broad terms, this change allowed those of a lower rank to attend the EFOP, but required a bachelor’s degree, thus raising the academic level. Their analysis found that chief officers who entered the four-year program (a succession planning endeavor) retired not too soon after completing it—thus limiting a return on this educational investment.
I imagine at some point that the NFA asked, what if we increase the educational requirements for the EFOP while creating opportunities sooner in an officer’s career? Upon completion from the program, Executive Fire Officers would serve their communities longer, while also raising the bar for leaders in the American fire service. From a pure business perspective, this provides a greater return on the educational investment; it also directly supports succession management.
Evolution of a Program
More than six years ago, Chief Chris Riley (Pueblo, Colo.) and I started the National Fire Chief Mentoring program through the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee. As this concept grew, it transitioned to the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE).
We researched many mentoring programs when creating ours. Our goal was to establish mentor/protégé relationships that paired experienced fire chiefs with new fire chiefs—another example of succession planning—or those soon-to-be fire chiefs. We designed a complex questionnaire, or a mentor protégé match form, to ensure we were making the right matches.
Our research revealed that most fire service professionals believe it’s a leader’s responsibility to grow and develop our subordinates, and eventually, those who replace us. Regardless of generational issues, work/life balance, inconvenience of working days, etc., most took this responsibility extremely seriously.
Our initial focus was on creating one-on-one mentoring relationships, which is a classic approach to succession planning. However, over time we grew to appreciate that our greatest ROI would be through a succession management professional development approach. The question we kept asking ourselves: Do we try to raise the bar one individual at the time, or do we try to raise a whole generation of leaders at once?
This new approach involved adapting the Commission on Professional Credentialing’s Chief Fire Officer (CFO) and Fire Officer (FO) applications as a force multiplier to the succession planning management process.
To understand this better, you must understand the key benefits of the CFO program:
- Promotes excellence within fire and EMS profession.
- Improves professionalism.
- Provides a career path.
- Tests the ability to demonstrate superior characteristics.
- Assists jurisdictional authorities in identifying individuals who possess superior skills, knowledge and abilities prior to the hiring or promotion process.
- Establishes benchmarks and core competencies.
- Develops an understanding of the need for continuing education, training and skill proficiency.
Succession management based upon CPC’s certification process addresses two of the 16 firefighter life safety initiatives: LSI #1, which covers leadership, management supervision and personal responsibility, a necessary requirement to change any culture, and LSI #5, which calls for national standards for training, qualification and certification including recertification—which is in alignment with CPC’s requirements.
Many senior fire officers expressed concerns to us about the lack of bench strength in their agencies, even at the company officer level. They believed future continuity, both in operational readiness and administrative performance, was at risk.
The result: We came to the opinion that the overarching capstone of mentoring is succession management. Eventually, we changed the program to aggressively focus on company officers using the Fire Officer technical competencies outlined by the CPC to provide a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis for company officers, developing their portfolio, while identifying a pathway to great professional competency and professional development.
It was then clear that the target audience we first considered would not have the impact upon the fire service that we’d envisioned. Like the metamorphosis of the EFOP, the National Fire Service Mentoring program’s (and a soon-to-be published mentoring manual from CPC) target audience became fire officers who, within a generation, will be chief officers and future fire chiefs.
Succession Management Tips
Regardless of what path you decide to take in this area, you need to establish clear objectives for your succession planning/management process, including:
- Identify those with the potential to assume greater responsibility in the organization.
- Provide critical development experiences to those who can move into key roles (acting position, committee’s staff assignments, etc.).
- Create an inclusive environment designed to support the development of high-potential leaders.
If the succession process is done properly, the following outcomes should occur:
- Improved employee commitment and retention.
- Members meet career development expectations.
- Reduction in the cost of recruiting employees in mid- to upper management levels without open exams.
Our research strongly suggests that experiences develop people and it should not be left to sudden crisis management. Optimally, succession planning results from 1) a working partnership between management and employees to accurately define the employee’s role and current priorities; and 2) the employee ensuring that management has the information and resources to re-fill the role.
The bottom line: Whether you’re at the top of the organization striving to develop future leaders or somewhere in the middle, everyone is responsible for developing their replacement and the replacement’s replacement, so that the talent continuum is seamless.
The quality of the results in managing succession is proportionate to the quality of the new employees you hire. You should hire for quality and character, not solely on competency, especially with entry-level positions.
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