The Crunch: Managing Succession Planning in a Topsy Turvy Labor Market

School districts have never faced a labor market quite like this. If you have not implemented effective workforce and succession planning, then you start hiring the “least objectionable” candidates.

Scanning the headlines of any Texas daily over the last few months yields at least a handful of superintendent retirements. What does not make the paper are the ripple effects. The chief academic officer who becomes the acting superintendent. Or maybe the retired superintendent who becomes the interim superintendent because the board of trustees can’t find an acceptable candidate.

Let’s say the deputy superintendent leaves district A to accept the head job at district B. The Chief Financial Officer follows the deputy to district B as part of the new management team. The director of accounting becomes the CFO…but is short staffed so ends up doing both jobs for the next year.

Or the assistant superintendent for curriculum becomes the Chief Academic Officer. The high school principal replaces the assistant superintendent, but there is no one in the pipeline to take over the principal’s job. The district recruits a principal from a neighboring district and starts a new game of musical personnel chairs. Too many vacancies. Too few candidates. Additional work for everyone.

And we haven’t even brought up the classroom teacher shortage.

School districts have never faced a labor market quite like this. If you have not implemented effective workforce and succession planning, then you start hiring the “least objectionable” candidates. Or you settle for mediocre because “hey, at least they have a pulse, right?” A district will gladly take adequate over exceptional, if adequate is the best you can do.

Let’s break this cycle. In my experience, there are five components that create effective workforce and succession planning. Consider your organization’s strengths and weaknesses across the components below:

  1. Talent Identification and Acquisition: Does the organization identify, recruit, and hire the people it needs to be successful?
    >The effective district: The executive office, HR and campus leaders collaborate on talent identification and recruitment strategies. At a high level, the district aligns succession planning efforts to mission critical positions. The district identifies high potential employees in a thoughtful and deliberate manner.
  2. Advancement and Retention: Do your people have opportunities for advancement and do your high performers stay with the organization?
    > The effective district: HR conducts annual reviews of job classifications, descriptions and compensation, tracks retention and turnover metrics, and implements diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Executives lead workforce planning strategy, including implementing annual critical position succession plans. There is a strategy for retaining high potential employees.
  3. Knowledge and Skills Development: Are your people getting better at their jobs and acquiring new skills.
    The effective district: Professional development programs are aligned to job responsibilities, designed to improve skills, and support advancement, including leadership competencies. Professional development and training expectations are aligned to performance evaluation.
  4. Performance Evaluation: Do you have an accurate read on how each person contributes to your success?
    > The effective district: Annual evaluations identify individual goals and opportunities and inform compensation and advancement decisions. Evaluations are aligned to departmental goals, and could include a 360 or peer component, in addition to interim assessments throughout the year.
  5. Leadership Cultivation: Do you identify and nurture your people that have the potential to take on greater responsibilities?
    > The effective district: District and campus leaders assess high potential employees through multiple channels, including establishing a mentorship program. The district identifies specific leadership competencies and integrates them with performance evaluation and professional development. Executive leaders should be actively engaged in identifying and nurturing their potential successors.

These components influence the entire HR management lifecycle, from pre-employment to onboarding, training, and development, including advancement. When these five components are aligned and functioning, your district has a framework to hire and retain the right people, with the right skills, at the right time and place.

This is not a quick fix. Implementing effective workforce planning requires a commitment to the long term, recognizing that districts have differing priorities and resource constraints. How your own organization approaches the five components should account for current needs, mitigate potential weaknesses, and support long term succession planning.

No system will ever completely shield your district from the surprise retirement, a key individual leaving for personal reasons beyond your control, or your IT director winning the lottery and moving to the Bahamas. However, taking a long look at the five components above—not just addressing recruitment, but also how your employees improve their skills and their opportunities to advance—will give you a needed edge in today’s labor market. Careful and intentional workforce planning now will also pay dividends in the smoother times ahead.

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