Succession planning, or targeted leadership development, is not very common in higher education institutions, perhaps because of the corporate cronyism it often calls to mind. Certainly, the values and hiring practices in higher education are inconsistent with the “good ol’ boy” network found in the corporate sector, but perhaps higher education institutions could apply some of the more benign aspects of succession planning to minimize disruptions associated with leadership change, preserve institutional memory, and make full use of the talents within the institution.

Succession planning goes beyond generic leadership development, although a strong leadership development program is a good foundation to build upon, says Desna Wallin, associate professor of lifelong education, administration, and policy at the University of Georgia.

Wallin, a former community college president, has studied succession planning in community colleges and says that leadership development typically addresses skills that are needed for a wide variety of positions, whereas succession planning provides training tailored to specific positions based on leadership competencies defined by national organizations as well as those specific to a certain position at a particular institution. For example, what does the vice president of academic services need to know and be able to do? Does the person in this position need to have a doctorate? Is teaching experience a requirement? The answers to these questions need to be taken into account when doing succession planning.

Succession planning begins with the support of the top administration. This is necessary because of the resources needed to provide institution-wide professional development and because good succession planning is closely linked to strategic planning, Wallin says.

Good succession planning programs do not focus solely on the top administrative positions but encourages employees at all levels to get involved, which helps develop a core of “better-informed, better-qualified, more interested and supportive people who understand the institution,” Wallin says.

Although succession planning originates at the top, like any other professional development activity it needs to have input from others throughout the institution to define competencies and develop workshops, Wallin says.

Daytona Beach Community College, one of the institutions whose program Wallin studied, has a succession plan that covers all leadership positions, from senior administration to directors. The plan includes a rolling five-year view of potential leadership position openings and identifies the minimum qualifications for each.

People throughout the college are encouraged to take advantage of targeted development opportunities with the idea that they may someday apply for a certain position. One important element of this and any succession planning program is to let participants know that participation does not guarantee they will be promoted to a leadership position. “Succession planning does not preclude bringing in talent from outside the institution,” Wallin says.

One of the risks of providing extensive succession planning for people at the institution is that the program might qualify them for positions outside the institution. “That is part of the cost of doing business,” Wallin says.

Although a succession planning program may be open to the entire institution, if it is fairly rigorous and time intensive, participants will self-select and decide whether they have the commitment to stay with it.

Succession planning programs generally consist of noncredit instructional workshops that address broad leadership issues and often include progressively specific activities such as attending meetings associated with the position and receiving one-on-one mentoring.

Although succession planning and associated professional development activities can be expensive, the benefits often justify the costs. Promoting from within preserves institutional memory and reduces the amount of time needed to teach new administrators about the institution. It also enables institutions to create professional development activities that are specific to the needs identified in the strategic planning process.


Rob Kelly is the former editor of Academic Leader.

Reprinted from “Succession Planning: Developing Future Leaders from Within” in Academic Leader 23.1(2007)2,8 © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.