One of the most challenging dimensions of organizational leadership is succession planning. John C. Maxwell writes: "When all is said and done, your ability as a leader will not be judged by what you achieved personally or even by what your team accomplished during your tenure. You will be judged by how well your people and your organization did after you were gone."
Succession planning is a process designed to pass the torch of responsibility to those next in line. The fire service works hard at developing the abilities of our people to receive the torch and learn to manage emergency incidents, but we frequently fall short in developing their administrative leadership skills so they can lead their departments into the future.
Succession planning is not something you begin thinking about as you approach retirement. It's much more than simply asking the question, "Who will fill my shoes?"
Successful succession planning takes years to develop and must include all levels of the organization. True succession planning focuses on developing those in all ranks and positions to the point that the torch of responsibility can be passed without falter.
In Hanover Park, Ill., we believe that succession planning begins with the hiring process and moves through every job assignment and the promotional process.
When we evaluate a candidate for employment, we not only look at their abilities as a "blue shirt," but also their "white shirt" potential. We recognize that many of the firefighters we hire today will ultimately be our department’s future leaders. In assessing these candidates, we try to evaluate both their ability to work as a firefighter/paramedic and their ability to progress and ultimately lead.
Our succession-planning process involves personnel at all ranks and levels of experience. We utilize coordinator positions that let us assign interested members to special projects or areas. These coordinators typically handle tasks that would normally be assigned to the rank immediate above them.
We find that this practice stretches and challenges us and allows growth while still providing mentoring oversight. This philosophy not only grows our people, it makes the transition into the next rank almost seamless.
In addition to the coordinator program, we've initiated an officer-development training program. The program is designed to go beyond Fire Officer I and II training programs to focus on a multitude of challenging topics.
Class themes have included leadership, sustainability, finance, HR, strategic planning, ethics and tactical decision-making. Classes are often case study-driven, presenting students with situations that challenge their assumptions and stretch them to find adaptive solutions. Classes are taught by Hanover Park personnel as well as nationally recognized experts and enrollment is open to any department member.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
Under this succession-planning mindset, our entry-level employees are consistently high-quality performers focused on excellence. Officer candidates taking promotional exams are better prepared and, once promoted, have a faster and more productive transition into their roles.
An example of program success can be seen through the management of our new candidate hiring process. One lieutenant promoted under this system, who's assigned to the training division, manages almost exclusively our new employee recruitment and hiring process. She works jointly with our village’s human resources department to manage all aspects of testing and interviewing. As candidates progress, her coordinators conduct all of the reference checks and background investigations, including participation in the interviews.
These team members clearly understand the responsibility they carry and have an outstanding commitment to excellence. They consistently produce extremely high-quality work—while growing in ways few fire service employees ever experience.
A Word of Caution
Once you embark on a succession-planning program designed to grow your people, your job as a leader becomes measurably more difficult. As your people grow, they'll gain knowledge and experience and will challenge the status quo. As their leader, you must work hard to avoid becoming a roadblock in their growth process and thereby limiting their potential success and that of your organization.