Thursday, August 9, 2012

Thoughts on staff development and succession planning

Fort Vancouver Regional Library System recently conducted a search for a Staff Development Manager. I find it hard to get an exact read on the expectations for a position from just a job description; having written my own fair share of them, I know they are a genre that frequently and necessarily combines applicant marketing with management wishlists and HR CYA boilerplate. I do think, though, that FVRL genuinely is looking to go beyond having a Trainer-in-Chief. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) One supplemental question in the application packet particularly piqued my interest as someone with a foot in both the library and HR worlds: "What is the relationship between staff development and succession planning?"

(Actually, "piqued my interest" is an understatement. I love this question. I adore this question. I will likely return to the height and breadth and depth of my affection for it in another post.)

Succession planning is an area where what smart organizations want more than anything else is options. Good staff development can help give organizations more options. For example:

  • You can have people ready to move into vacant positions and promote from within.
  • You can have in-house temporary coverage for essential functions of vacant positions during a search, making it more feasible to take the necessary time to find and train the right people as successors.
  • You can develop a good reputation among workers in the field, helping you to attract the highest quality candidates for vacant positions.
  • You can provide more challenges and satisfactions for staff who desire them, thereby increasing retention and reducing the frequency of vacant positions.

I have seen too much succession "planning" driven by urgency. That urgency can be negative, as in fear, or positive, as in opportunism. Whatever form the urgency takes, the end result is usually a narrowing of options and a feeling that circumstances are forcing a particular decision instead of informing a robust decision-making process. The organization finds itself reacting instead of acting, and the ability to see the staff as more than a jumble of job descriptions and individual skillsets can be lost. Good staff development programs, as identifiers of need as well as vehicles of improvement, can help shape that jumble into a coherent narrative of strengths and weaknesses and expectations. When succession happens--when organizations cannot avoid the question, "What happens next?"--it helps to have the narrative act more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" story than a cliffhanger.

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