1. Section Editor(s): Johnson, Joyce A. PhD, RN-BC

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After over 45 years in professional development, I am retiring. I am ambivalent about my decision, but I know that my department will be left in good hands because I had the opportunity to participate in the selection of my successor and to ease her into my position over the past year. She was hired as my assistant director with her own set of responsibilities in addition to eventually assuming mine. Because of our succession and transition plans, I am confident leaving what I have created and know that she will not only continue what I have started but also improve on it. There is no doubt that there will be continuity of service to our staff. I have asked her to co-author this, my last column, so she can share the experience from her perspective as well.


Succession planning is a process for identifying and preparing people within an organization to fill key positions. It is usually focused on those positions that will have the most impact on stability, production, and growth; those that have impact on strategic initiatives. We often associate succession planning with board members, the chief executive officer, and upper management. Proactive succession planning helps an organization implement a replacement planning process so that, when an opening is available through retirement, resignation, or termination, there is someone in the company prepared to step into that position. However, it is more than that. It is a plan to develop talented leaders and is a strategy to retain the talent that exists in an organization. It involves providing a structured learning and development plan, coaching and mentoring, and offering challenging assignments. Nursing professional development directors and practitioners are not often included in succession planning but, I suggest, should be because of impact on the stability of the organization. These are also often difficult-to-fill positions because of the education and skill set required to perform the responsibilities of the position. Failing to replace these positions can have an impact on the on-boarding of new staff, the continuing competence of the current staff, quality and safety initiatives, and the care experience itself. I have seen the negative impact of open professional development positions not filled for 3 or 4 months or more because a qualified candidate could not be found.


Why is succession planning important for organizations? It ensures that the organization is prepared with a plan to provide continuity of work in the absence of key staff. It provides a continuing supply of qualified and motivated people. It is a commitment to developing career paths for those people. It garners an organizational reputation for investing in the staff and sends a message to employees that they are valued. In this time where baby boomers are retiring in greater numbers with fewer people available to fill the positions, there is not the emerging group of potential employees as there has been in the past. If the organization eliminated middle managers as many did in downsizing the organization in the 1980s and 1990s, this pool is no longer a source for promotion. Younger managers, for the most part, have not been adequately mentored because of the lack of middle managers who previously coached individuals into these roles. Knowledge transfer is a key component of the preparation process. Challenges to succession planning include the size of the organization, lack of money, type of staff funding, lack of retirements (people staying longer in the workforce) or turnover, inadequate employee development, and lack of timely promotion so that staff leave the organization for other opportunities.


The basic steps of succession planning are to identify appropriate positions based on future needs, determine when they will be available, identify competencies for each position, assess and select high-performing/high-potential candidates, conduct a competency gap analysis, design developmental opportunities for each set of competencies, create individual development plans, implement the development plan, coach and maintain the talent pool, reassess and track development over time as staff are moved into new positions, and evaluate the program for effectiveness. There are no specific time frames for these activities. The time frame should be based on your organization and the need. It is important to note that succession planning is not a guarantee that a person will be placed in a new position. Rather it is a developmental process and plan to prepare someone should there become an opportunity in the organization.


Our definition of transition management is a gradual process of moving the identified staff into a new position. In the best of all possible worlds, succession planning and transition management would take place for all leadership positions in your organization. I have been very fortunate to have been involved in these processes for my retirement. About 3 years ago, I identified a few staff members who I felt would be appropriate for the regional director position, and I followed all of their careers in our organization. Just over a year ago, we identified those who were potential candidates, and along with those who applied for the position the candidates were interviewed and selection was made by a panel, including myself and my supervisor. An offer was made for the position of assistant director with the understanding that they would succeed the director and the offer was accepted. The assistant director position has different responsibilities than the director with a focus on academic relations rather than on operations. The new staff member transferred to the assistant director position. I created a 1-year plan for educating this new person in each responsibility of the position as she oriented to the responsibilities of the assistant director position. Working directly with her on a specific area of responsibility each month, I then turned over that new responsibility to her with my back-up and continued support. As she took on additional responsibilities, she got to know the people she needed to work with and they got to know and trust her. She also got to know the staff she would be responsible for managing and had the opportunity to work with them long enough to make the transition seamless. As she began to take on each responsibility, she began to gradually transition into the role. In my final 2 months prior to retirement, I served as her "assistant."


Here are some things we learned in the process. Secure management support; develop, review, and update your plan regularly; identify potential candidates and watch their performance (you do not need to let them know you are considering them at this point); develop procedure manuals for the key responsibilities you perform including "how to" step-by-step information where possible; suggest that adequate time be provided for overlap and preparation; and know that your plan needs to be unique to you, your organization, and your position.


From my perspective, we have had a great year working together. I also know that we are the exception for succession planning and transition management rather than the rule. Because she had her own responsibilities, it took us longer than it might have if we had full time to devote to knowledge transfer, but she has been able to establish relationships with people she needs to work with over time, and this has been of great benefit. I knew she was ready to take over the position before the year was out.


Reflections of the successor:If there's one thing that I learned through the succession planning process, it's this: Your role may be different than your title. My official title is Assistant Director, but my role is that of a successor. My position was approved with a specific set of responsibilities and deliverables, and the challenge was making sure I was able to meet those expectations and still transition into the new director role. At the end of 12 months, I am now faced with the dilemma of taking over the role for which I was being prepared while making sure that the work that I've started and implemented on my own is sustained and successful. I had to learn the delicate balance of finding my own way, being true to my personal style while staying true to the legacy that was created by the director before me. The previous director has established a reputation not only because of the quality of work that she has overseen and influenced over time, but also because of her own work ethic and personal communication style. I had to learn to speak about pursuing the same vision of nursing excellence using my own style and competencies. The other concept that I had to learn was managing. I have always considered myself a leader throughout my nursing career; it was a competence I was confident I possessed. The new role I'm being groomed to assume includes managing several people in a department with diversity of roles, responsibilities, job functions, and personalities. I had to learn how to incorporate managerial activities into my calendar.


All that being said, the past 12 months have proven to be the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my professional life. Although the importance of succession planning was always something I understood and believed in, I never thought that it would be implemented in professional development and never really entertained playing a role in it myself. It has been a privilege to have been tapped on the shoulder to assume such a big responsibility, but it continues to be an intimidating process to comprehend. I state this and realize that the most intimidating times are still to come. Once I assume the role of director, I'm sure there will be plenty of times where my performance will be compared to that of my predecessor. In those times, I just hope not to disappoint.


Column Editor's final note: I am grateful to have been a part of the editorial board of this Journal and a column editor for the past 5 years. The first article I ever wrote and had published was in this Journal in 1986, and the last will be this column. Thank you for reading my column over the past several years, and I wish you much success in professional development. There is no better job in nursing!