Cultivating a Culture of Succession Potential: How Paul Rumsey helped shape strategy at Parkland Health and Hospital System

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Paul Rumsey

Why Succession?

Unexpected turnover in leadership puts any organization at risk.  As organizations seek to build succession pipelines, senior leaders are weighing the associated costs with the anticipated benefits.  Instinctively, leaders usually rush to action and schedule talent review meetings or send around a succession spreadsheet for leaders to complete.  They often, though, skip right past the discussion about why organizations must focus proactively on succession planning as a culture initiative.  Therefore, these activities come across as one-off meetings that check a box instead of integrating leadership strategy into the organization’s culture.  Leaders dread annual talent reviews, viewing them as busy work required by HR instead of essential discussions that all leaders value to foster engagement, build trust and empower growth. 

To ensure future stability that can weather change or growth, organizations need to implement a culture that identifies potential leadership successors while providing succession development opportunities for everyone.  Increasing internal promotions safeguards the overall culture while facilitating knowledge and skill transfer from leaders to their successors.  Then the organizations can hire externally for strategic reasons of enhanced innovation or infusion of skillsets not currently available within.  I have implemented the following best practices during our recent focus of succession management at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas, TX.  We have already started seeing talent mobility and internal promotions as well as receiving accolades from external regulatory and consulting groups. 

Whom Should We Include in Succession Discussions?

Once a leadership team has agreed on the purpose and value for succession planning, it needs to determine the scope.   For budget reasons, organizations often focus on building succession at the highest levels because the cost for replacing VPs and Chiefs is extremely high.  Attrition in those upper-level positions, however, often causes a negative ripple effect if the proper replacement is not hired.  Focusing primarily on VPs and above turns succession management into an elitist focus versus a culture focus on leadership at all levels.  It also reduces the focus on pipeline diversity.  It’s a real sign of an organization’s values to focus on respectful succession discussions with action items for all levels in the organization.  By providing leadership pipeline opportunities at all levels, the organization will increase employee engagement, increase retention and increase employees’ effectiveness in their current roles while they develop for possible future positions.

Listen to a Podcast on Talent Mapping Strategies with Parkland Health VP and Chief Workforce Officer Sebastien Girard.

Where Do We Begin?

So the question then turns to how to develop a strong succession culture.  The first step is analysis of the current state.  Many organizations use a 9 Box to assess leaders’ performance and potential for promotion.  Just filling out a form won’t cut it, though.  They need to hold calibration meetings to gain consensus on their personal assessment of their own teams.  For instance, all Directors in Finance would meet to discuss their Supervisors and Managers on the 9 Box, succession pipeline chart and development action chart.  One Director might think her people are exceptional, yet another Director might have a different work experience with someone and wants to share both positive and constructive feedback for that Director to consider before finalizing the 9 Box, Succession Chart or Development Actions. These calibration meetings can be facilitated in a compassionate, respectful way and will result in quality analysis of a team’s succession bench strength and gaps to address through purposeful development.  They will also safeguard against unconscious bias or potential discrimination.

Leaders must move the needle beyond just one-time events and into true leadership cultures that assess and develop their people through continual feedback and development discussions in their 1 on 1s and informal feedback discussions throughout the year.  Then the formal succession meeting is just the documentation of conversations that have occurred previously. 

The next step is to start the succession discussions at the lower level and roll up the results into the higher levels.  For instance, an IT division would start with Directors meeting to discuss their Managers and Supervisors.  The VP of those Directors would be in the room to hear the discussion.  Then the VP rolls up the template to include all the Managers, Supervisors and Directors into a new presentation that will be discussed with her/his fellow VPs in front of the EVP.  Then the EVP would present her/his full leadership team succession template to the CEO in front of the other EVPs.  Usually at that highest level, the discussion focuses on VPs and high potential Directors. 

The discussion would then turn to action items to enhance the succession bench.  Those often are a list of formal training assignments such as online courses, certifications or leadership programs.  That suffices only one aspect of a person’s development spectrum, though.  A more robust focus should be in on-the-job application of learning through stretch assignments, cross-functional projects and talent mobility into other divisions.  A learning and performance culture will focus the discussion beyond just the upper-level leaders and beyond just formal training.  It will dive deep into the organizational structure and will encompass real-world application and experiential learning.

What Obstacles Might Arise?

Too many times, organizations roll out initiatives without integrating them into other programs.  The employees are left confused over lack of communication and frustrated with the extra work required.  Fortunately, succession discussions integrate very well into the overall learning and leadership development initiatives.  In fact, at two organizations, I implemented robust leadership development programs that supported succession discussions and vice versa.  We also integrated the timing of succession discussions with performance reviews and annual goal setting. 

To enhance communication for all participants, conduct kick-off information sessions and a recorded webinar that discusses the purpose and tools for succession.  Invite leaders to attend a session or listen to the recorded webinar so they understand why you are having succession meetings, how they integrate into the culture, how to use the templates and how to prepare effectively for the meetings. The meetings will clarify the milestone dates, role of each person involved, expected outcomes and value for each level of the organization.

To overcome pushback from divisions that view this as just an HR item, pilot the communication and a round of succession talent reviews within HR (as the key sponsor) and within a division that might push back (i.e., to get their buy-in and to learn potential risks to mitigate).  Use that division as a testimonial of what works and the impact on their own leadership discussions and engagement.

Then the final stage is to document and track success metrics such as internal promotions, improvement in succession bench strength from year to year, increase in employee engagement scores about development and career focus and retention (specifically because of career advancement opportunities).   Organizations will not simply create more leadership roles in order to retain employees.  Employees, however, will more likely stay in an organization that transparently focuses on leadership succession, on-the-job learning experiences and overall employee development.

Will We Safeguard Our Future?

A collaborative and proactive focus on succession planning can be a differentiator for an organization.  It requires leaders to hold adult conversations about their team’s strengths, development gaps, action items to enhance performance and increasing the spotlight on leadership diversity and opportunity for everyone.  Strong succession focus does not have to break the budget constraints.  A modest investment of time and resources, though, will produce strong dividends that better safeguard the retention of employees, will foster an engaging culture and will retain proprietary knowledge.

Paul Rumsey is the Chief Learning Officer for Parkland Health and Hospital System.