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2013 February 18 - 12:00 am

POV: Keep the Talent Pipeline Flowing Through Succession Planning

Look at the data or, if you are more anecdotal in nature, look at the number of grey-headed attendees at an annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Either way, you realize there is going to be shortage of community college leaders in the next decade. Study after study has documented this coming reality.

As recently as last year, AACC’s research office found that colleges will lose a total of 75 percent of our leaders (CEO’s) over the next decade. Now, let’s add to that the number of vice presidents and deans who will also retire during this same time period and, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Where will boards of trustees and administrators find the qualified talent necessary to sustain the viability of America’s community colleges? Many of our state universities have eliminated a meaningful focus on community college leadership and directed their students into some generic courses in higher education administration, apparently thinking that pathway will solve the problem. Not good thinking.

Outside of traditional degree programs, there are a number of excellent leadership development programs available to future leaders. AACC, the Association of Community College Trustees, the League for Innovation in the Community College, National Search and Education Consulting and several other organizations offer excellent programs and have benefited many individuals seeking to move into a CEO position. However, community colleges need leaders who are well-trained at all levels of leadership within the college.

A growing number of community colleges and boards of trustees are responding to the future leadership challenge by embracing succession planning/targeted leadership development as the most promising means of assuring the sustainability which is vital to the long-term success of their colleges. Briefly defined, succession planning is a process by which an organization assures necessary and appropriate leadership for the future through an internal talent pipeline focused on sustaining the college’s long-term mission and strategic goals.

In the January 2011 issue of Community College Review, Delores McNair, Christopher Duree, and Larry Ebbers provide an excellent survey of succession planning issues. They conclude that community college presidents have a responsibility to “integrate the AACC leadership competencies into the hiring, selection, and evaluation of administrators with an eye to the immediate and long- term needs of the college.”

Succession planning, when intentionally designed and conducted, provides an orderly process to develop appropriate leadership resources for the future to insure the sustainability of the college’s long-term mission and goals.

Establishing a positive climate for succession planning is critical. From the beginning, all employees should see this process as a valuable opportunity for professional growth, not just as one more task to be done. Indeed, succession planning must be part of the overall strategic plan, just as important as planning for new programs, new services, or new facilities. An important principle to establish at this stage is that succession planning guarantees no employee a future promotion.

Assessing the need for succession planning is critical to the process. The college president, the board, and senior administrators must engage in a serious evaluation of the college’s long-term vision and strategic plan and the capacity of its current personnel to accomplish that plan.

The college’s senior-level leaders must define the demand: Where among the college’s most critical positions are the projected vacancies and retirements? In addition, they need to project how the skills required by those positions might change in the future. In other words, what additional competencies might those positions require in the future?

A careful analysis of existing talent within the college needs to be performed in order to identify possible candidates to fill those future openings. A gap analysis follows in order to identify the additional skills those candidates might need to be qualified for a future opening.

Once the gap is identified for an employee, an individual professional development plan should be developed to insure that the person is prepared when needed for a future vacancy.

When the assessment and planning are concluded, a targeted leadership training program must be designed and implemented. This program does not take the place of the individual professional development plans produced during the succession planning process. Rather, the basic leadership program supplements those individual plans.

The identification of a variety of presenters, persons who are both qualified by their own experiences and engaging in their styles, is extraordinarily important. For example, involving the participants in group exercises in the analysis of case studies also produces positive results.

Some leadership development programs also include a follow-up experience to build on the knowledge and skill base of the participants. Some use a mentoring experience. Others group the program partipants into small teams which spend the next semester or year engaged in addressing some issue that has been identified in the college’s strategic plan.

A cornerstone of this follow-up experience is a presentation by the teams to the college’s senior leadership. This presentation should describe the problem each team has addressed, their findings, their major recommendations, and a proposed plan for implementation of a solution to that problem.

During my last ten years as president of Guilford Technical Community College, we developed and implemented a succession plan like the one described above. Did it solve all of our leadership problems? No, but most of our leadership vacancies were filled by internal candidates who had participated in the targeted leadership program.

Perhaps more important, the development of a succession plan complemented our overall strategic plan and allowed individual employees to more clearly understand their potential roles in the future of our college.

More and more community college presidents are adopting succession planning and leadership development as key components of their work. Janice Gilliam, president of Northeast State Community College (Tenn.) calls it “the single most important thing I have done as president, so that when I leave, many people will be ready to continue to move the college forward. It has created a new culture on campus in which the employee is valued as the greatest asset of our organization.”

Larry Keen, president of Fayetteville Technical Community College (N.C.) is equally positive about the follow-up team projects and what was accomplished for his college: “The work done by our small teams as part of the succession planning/leadership development program saved us over $100,000 in consulting fees that would have been needed to work on these important projects.”

As community college leaders, we primarily value our students. Especially given the leadership challenges facing us, we need to pay equal attention to the value of our employees, our human capital.

The author is president emeritus of Guilford Technical Community College and a member of the National Community College Advisory Board for National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center. He currently serves as president/CEO of Don Cameron and Associates and the senior partner with National Search and Education Consulting. He can be reached at 336.307.9646 or dcameronllc@gmail.com. This article is another in a series to be authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to mbmathis@national.edu or, call 512-813-2300.

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