Succession management planning

Ron Hellbusch
Director of Public Works & Utilities (retired)
City of Westminster, Colorado

Planning for the inevitable turnover in top management has been an essential management issue since public and private organizations evolved. The priority placed on the succession planning process varies significantly in organizations for a variety of reasons. Regardless, successful, innovative and progressive organizations do not overlook a formal process to assure there is a continuity of management and management philosophy in place at all times and under all circumstances.

If there were arguments among public corporations in the past for not addressing a formal process for "succession," those arguments need to be challenged today. The reason lies in the fact that people in management-related positions in the 1990s and certainly into the new century are changing jobs as often as every five years, according to much management association research. Many of us have seen this trend in our own organizations and certainly in our public works profession.

The impact of this frequent change of positions among managers is compelling. Organizations recognize today that the person or persons they "assumed" would be in place when top managers retired or sought new management opportunities may not be there to assume the upward promotion.

There are many reasons for this constant movement among management types, but one common reason given is simply that people are looking for more challenge, quick growth in their careers and monetary benefits. Compounding the problem as people begin moving from job to job is the fact the baby boomer numbers are significant and growing, resulting in many more retirements or semi-retirements among top management. This trend is creating a greater need for top management talent to fill their positions.

Many make a case that it is important to inject new management concepts, new management styles and philosophies into an organization's values and structure. This "fresh look" thought process is what many organizations use as reasons for not making succession planning a high priority. It is felt that overly structuring future management philosophies by succession planning can be a detriment rather than a positive step. There is a risk following this approach, however. It is that there is no real objective and the outcome is not known, which many would suggest is not a good approach to maintaining clear organizational management goals.

The prevailing thought is to provide the "fresh look" approach, but to do it with a plan and a process so the organization's management future can be guided, molded into what will result in continued (or new) successes that meets the department's future needs. That is where succession management planning comes in as a way to formalize the process to guide future management values and philosophies, yet offers the opportunity for study of current and future needs of an organization.

The first step is for an organization's top management team and the public works' management group to agree to endorse succession management planning and then establish a process and specific steps to implement the program.

Coaching, mentoring, shadowing, training and challenging assignments for the "rising stars" in a public works department can be key elements of a succession plan. Selecting those promising individuals can be the result of evaluating performance appraisals, consulting with other department management staff, and looking closely at productive division heads, creative key staff personnel and those who have shown an aptitude for doing very thorough work and going the extra mile on day-to-day tasks. And always, listening to be aware of those who want to move up, expand their job tasks and grow with the organization.

The order of those elements, noted above, to develop future managers through a succession plan could vary among public works organizations. One approach that has worked for many is to identify the rising stars first, then provide a formal management training and development program for each of those employees, followed by coaching, mentoring and making growth opportunities available to them.

Concurrently with their training and development program it is good to make specific and challenging assignments that are within their grasp and capabilities, yet stretch them in their performance and critical thinking.

Special assignments can include chairing a specific department task force, a short-term committee, or an assignment that does not involve others but that the person must develop solely on his or her own.

Another step involves making that person a part of an interdepartmental or citywide study group. Offering key staffers to assist the city manager's office or mayor's office, or other outside department task force or committee assignment, is yet another way to allow them the opportunity to expand and grow as you observe their work. This allows the director to showcase their rising stars and to get feedback from other managers outside of the public works department.

Shadowing can take the form of simply asking an established task force or committee to allow the staff person to attend strategy and planning meetings to observe how an effective group functions. Coaching and mentoring by the director then becomes an integral part of the individual's growth in his or her assignment.

An individualized work plan monitored with regularly scheduled weekly coaching and mentoring sessions between director and individual is critical to maximize the person's ability to recognize effective (as well as ineffective) actions, directions, critical thinking process and to see the "big picture" of the task and how it relates to the department or organization as a whole.

Smaller public works departments will, admittedly, have a more difficult time developing a succession plan for management, due to a smaller staff and less depth within a small department. The need, however, is just as important to the department and smaller city organization as it is to the larger organization. The elements suggested above can be integrated into a small organization's employee work schedules, if done in a way that allows those employees to blend both their daily tasks with mentoring, leadership assignments, training and even shadowing. It can be helpful in the smaller department to simply engage in the succession planning elements, one at a time, rather than combining all elements into a work plan.

Succession management planning may be debated among public organizations, but it is truly essential to assure a continuity of philosophy, knowledge and direction for the department's or organization's long-term success. And succession management planning can be a critical and helpful process to fill those ever-present management vacancies that public works departments are experiencing in today's mobile job setting.

Ron Hellbusch retired in June 2004 as the Director of Public Works & Utilities after 25 years in management positions with the City of Westminster, Colorado. He served as the 1993 Colorado Chapter President and was named one of APWA's Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year in 1996. A past member of the Leadership and Management, Congress Program Review and National Awards Committees, Hellbusch can be reached at

Everything You Need to Know to Be a Public Works Director discusses the common elements you need to know to be the best person for the job. What Every New Manager Needs to Know: Making a Successful Transition to Management gives readers the skills they need to excel in their new responsibilities, such as managing the relationship between individual and team performance, making key people decisions like hiring, coaching and evaluating, developing budgets, and mastering the skills of project management. The Effective Public Manager: Achieving Success in a Changing Government (3rd Ed.) provides core concepts to help real-world managers and managers-to-be meet the demands of their jobs head-on rather than work around the constraints of government. All can be ordered online at or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 5254.