Several years ago, the City of Myrtle Beach looked at its senior staff and knew changes were coming. Most of the department heads were long-time city employees, and 12 of the 16 were eligible to retire.
While city leaders knew they would have a large pool of individuals interested in available jobs, they were also aware that there wasn't a strong plan in place to identify the next generation of leaders in the city well-suited for the top jobs.
Succession planning is an important strategy in all types of workplaces. It can be especially key in local government, where cities and towns face the realities of high turnover rates, loss of institutional knowledge and broken continuity of service. A plan to develop and identify strong performers can help attract, engage and retain employees by creating growth opportunities for workers, but it's not always easy to put such a plan into action.
The City of Myrtle Beach decided to make a radical change, according to Angela Kegler, human resources director. The senior staff put together a list of competencies — things that go beyond technical skills — that would make successful directors. The list included qualities such as emotional intelligence, empathy, the ability to remain calm when dealing with members of the public, and the desire to work in a collaborative, diverse and inclusive environment.
Next, the city began a nine-month leadership development training program, which taught and encouraged city employees to demonstrate their skills and abilities through assigned projects. The training allowed the leadership team to identify who had the strongest competencies for future success in senior positions. In time, 16 new department heads were trained. The city still followed all proper hiring procedures for the positions that became available, posting jobs and interviewing for the positions.
"Over four years, not everybody was handpicked, but everybody who has gone into those [leadership] roles had gone through the program," Kegler said.
She said the city is using the same process "to build out competency models to build our bench strength, too. [The training allows] those who are interested in moving horizontally or vertically to build skills and participate in projects that demonstrate their skills."
Why is succession important?
"Our needs are unique. In the public sector, it's not just the skills and knowledge, you have to be a public servant. That takes another host of competencies and that limits our pool. It's a calling to serve your community," Kegler said. "You need seamless transition. You can train tasks; you can't train heart. They have to have passion."
She said employees were skeptical at first about the leadership training, since it was a marked difference from the way hiring and promotion were done in the past.
"But after the first year, after letting folks know that anybody's allowed to participate, they've embraced it significantly," she said, adding that of the 300 employees who have gone through the program in the past four years, 267 of them are still working for the City of Myrtle Beach.
"We recognize we'd be training folks to go elsewhere. We knew the skills we were teaching would open other doors. We were comfortable with that. We knew that the training we were doing was the best for our community and our industry," she said. "Those who have left, we provided them skills to go somewhere else, and we feel good about that. And the ones still here are serving at a greater level."
Kegler credited City Manager John Pedersen with identifying the importance of succession planning. "He wanted to shift from a management mindset to a leadership mindset, and he told me succession planning was a big need."
Donna Kazia, the personnel director for the City of Anderson, said that about eight years ago a group of city leaders identified 20 to 25 middle managers to go through a year of training in time management, supervision and other leadership skills. The group met monthly and Kazia, who was not employed by the city at the time, was brought in as an outside speaker.
She said the city recently had turnover in senior leadership, and while some came from the outside, others were promoted from the current ranks. David McCuen, who became the city manager in February, previously served as assistant city manager.
"When the finance director retired, we had a true succession plan. The assistant finance director was groomed and ready to step in," Kazia said.
Other times, internal candidates have been named "acting directors" and have stepped up and sold themselves to the city manager and were promoted.
"My argument is sometimes you do better knowing who you are bringing in from inside rather than outside. You know their background, their skills and how they will get along with people," she said, adding that succession planning is important for all organizations of all sizes.
Kazia said there are up and down sides to hiring from within an organization. She believes the good side of promoting from within is the signal it sends to current employees, that they will be able to move up by showing their leadership skills. The downside of promoting from within comes when a weak leader leaves a position, and the next in-line may not have been trained or prepared for the promotion.
"Or, the problems are so [severe] that you can't promote from within. That's the hard one to make the employees understand why they didn't get a chance at it."
Still, she believes it's often important to consider inside candidates.
"We buttonhole some of these people and don't let them grow. Our role should be offering them training, leadership classes, supervisory classes. We have to help them grow in the job. Give them a project so they can see where they are deficient and improve their skillset, learn new software, whatever it is," Kazia said. "We have to do a better job of helping our people grow. It's not cheap and it's not easy, but you've got to spend money to train. I'm not saying everybody has to go get a college degree, but they have to pick up skills they are lacking, know how to supervise employees or whatever goes on in your department."
"You can't keep somebody under the rock and expect them to move into the job when you retire. It's not going to work."
The SC Municipal Human Resources Association has the mission of promoting sound human resources administration and encouraging innovative programs.