L&D Best Practices: Succession Planning and Mentoring

Training magazine taps 2012 Training Top 125 winners and Top 10 Hall of Famers to provide their learning and development best practices in each issue. Here, we look at strategies for succession planning and mentoring.

Succession Planning

By Kevin W. Bruny, SPHR, Chief Learning Officer, Chesterfield County, VA

Like many localities across America, Chesterfield County, VA, anticipated and intentionally prepared for the departure of tenured leaders nearing retirement. In fact, a 2002 assessment of the county’s workforce highlighted some alarming trends, including the fact that 58 percent of the workforce was over the age of 40, of which 8 percent were eligible to retire in 2003. Taking a broader perspective, 28 percent of those identified were eligible to retire by 2008 and 52 percent eligible by 2013. Anticipating that more than half of the current organizational leaders could be gone in 10 years prompted the creation of the county’s Talent Management Program in 2003 to better prepare future leaders for these projected vacancies. In reality, by 2007 an increasing number of retirements were being processed each year before the economy slowed many anticipated exits. Since 2009, the county has processed a record number of retirements each year, with 2011 seeing a 73 percent increase over 2010 with 123 retirements.

Talent Assessment

Using McKinsey’s 1997 and 2000 study of “War on Management Talent” as a model, the county established and embraced a rigorous talent assessment practice. The initial 2003 assessment was the first step in a comprehensive Talent Management Program that is intended to help county leaders become better “talent managers” by increasing the level of performance conversations, creating strategic development opportunities for employees, and ultimately strengthening and retaining the county’s bench strength of future leaders. The Talent Management Program incorporates a biannual assessment of upper-level leaders to create a knowledge and skills inventory for current and future talent needs, as well as provide ongoing coaching and employee development planning. Following each assessment, managers and employees collaboratively create individual development plans to address deficiencies and identify developmental opportunities supportive of career advancement. Each talent assessment also refreshes an inventory of education, work history, strengths and weaknesses, and career desires that is used to anticipate future workforce changes.

Chesterfield County’s Talent Management Program allows county leadership to focus on planning, assessing, developing, and measuring its efforts in managing talent. Prior to each assessment, county leadership reviews the strategic direction of the county, highlights critical leadership positions and corresponding competencies, and identifies any key staffing changes for the coming years while setting the scope (usually grade 40 and above) of each assessment. The assessment process consists of several exercises that result in a profile of leadership talent and gaps within each division/department. Specifically, these exercises assess an individual’s core competency strengths and weaknesses, organizational mobility, retention risk, and future potential. Directors also identify possible successors and backups for key departmental positions. Unlike our private-sector counterparts, successors are not appointed but are selected through a competitive recruitment process that is focused on an individual’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. This requirement challenges leaders to be competitive internally and externally and provides greater impetus to create strong individual development plans that close any competency gaps through career-expanding opportunities. Learning opportunities are identified internally through Chesterfield University, or through external offerings, and might include special assignments, team projects, independent study, reading, coaching, temporary assignments, and other development programs.

State of Talent Reports

Once directors have completed the assessment of key departmental positions, they summarize the talent assessment in a short, one-page report, indicating the department’s “State of Talent.” This summary includes:

  • Any anticipated retirements or vacancies
  • The current talent state regarding diversity and high-potential talent
  • Departmental strengths and weaknesses
  • Future potential and developmental activities
  • A succession plan indicating possible successors and backups for key positions
  • Three to five talent management objectives that focus on strengthening the existing talent pool and remedying anticipated gaps, along with any anticipated actions to be taken during the course of the year

The departmental “State of Talent” Reports then are combined into a countywide report that is reviewed by the county’s leadership team.

Division/department assessments and State of Talent reports are completed in preparation for the Executive Talent Review Meeting at which the county administrator, three deputy county administrators, police and fire chief, and the directors of Human Resources meet to review the assessment outcomes. Each division presents its “State of Talent” highlighting areas of strengths and weaknesses and the objectives identified to overcome talent deficiencies. This group also reviews the strengths, weaknesses, future potential, and mobility desires of individuals identified as high-potential leaders. This review provides a verbal 360-feedback session on the perceptions of individuals while adding value to the program’s cross-organizational focus and increased performance conversations.

Foundational to our culture, metrics such as the number of promotions, retirements, external recruitments, and new hires help senior leaders monitor and manage talent.

Additionally, the results of each assessment provide county leaders with metrics such as percentage of length of time in position, those willing to transfer, percentage ready to accept either “larger responsibility” or “next-level job,” number of employees promoted, and percentage identified as “high potential.”

Talent management has been embraced by leaders who have engaged in the conversation of performance while placing a great deal of trust in the process. The challenge for the future lies in the county’s ability to provide the developmental opportunities that have been identified and discussed, as well as developing leaders who will stay and be the servant-leaders of tomorrow’s county government.

Succession Planning

By Phyllis Wright, Vice President, and Kelly Oliphant, Director, Talent and Organization Development, Baylor Health Care System (BHCS)

Studies show that the value of an organization’s physical resources is by far clearer than the value of its key talent. Bersin & Associates argues that this condition is addressed as organizations fully align, standardize, and integrate their processes and systems to make business-driven talent management decisions. Successful organizations have half the turnover, twice the rate of promotions, 71 percent higher scores on employee engagement, are 80 percent better at developing great leaders and 68 percent greater in their ability to plan for future talent needs than their industry peers. Health care is seriously lagging, with only 3 percent of organizations in the industry considered to be advanced strategic talent managers. Yet the ability to attract, retain, and engage a strong talent base capable of driving radical change is the key to survival during transformations.

Baylor Health Care System (BHCS) began its evolution from replacement strategies focused on risk management toward more internally integrated, opportunistic, and widespread sourcing strategies in 2007. Several major actions were foundational to BHCS’ journey:

  1. Leadership owns and takes accountability for Baylor’s talent. For example, the C-suite shares responsibility, along with the board, for the identification and development of key talent targeted toward the top critical positions. Executive-shared key talent retention and development goals are cascaded and evaluated as part of their overall performance rating. The Human Resource function facilitates talent discussions and the development, deployment, and continual improvement of integrated support tools, processes, and systems.
  2. Senior leadership articulates Baylor’s strategic context and talent implications. Accordingly, critical positions, key talent gaps, and shortages, as well as growth-enabling behaviors, competencies, and performance expectations are identified and inform talent identification, selection, and development decisions.
  3. A tight linkage is being established between talent planning identification, assessment, recruitment, compensation, and performance management processes.

Talent Call

The talent planning process begins with a talent call. All employees are encouraged to complete their online profile in SuccessFactors to share their accomplishments, backgrounds, and career aspirations. As leaders appraise their talent on current performance, they also provide potential ratings—whether or not employees are in critical roles, risks, and impacts of loss. The potential ratings are High, Growth, Mastery, Concern, and Too New to Rate. The high-potential employee is someone with the ability, engagement, and aspiration to rise to and succeed in more senior, critical positions. In the recent expansion of talent planning across BHCS, leaders provided potential ratings on 94 percent of the employee population. To institutionalize this process, this data will be refreshed as leaders complete the online performance appraisal for their respective employees annually.

BHCS leverages this data to paint its talent landscape and to connect the dots between talent segments and differentiated engagement, retention, development, and total reward strategies. The top four boxes of the performance and potential nine-box is used to define talent in scope for deeper manager assessment and talent reviews. The manager assessment includes identification of career paths, readiness, strengths to leverage, and development opportunities. A bottom-up approach to talent reviews then is executed.

These reviews move from service line to functional/entity-level discussions of high- and growth-potential talent to an operational overview and then to an executive summit. Bench strength and key talent development and retention is discussed. Development decisions at the executive summit include nominations to external leadership development and recognition programs such as Leadership Dallas and the internal Executive Growth and Development Experience (EDGE) program. Development strategies include support, assessment, and challenge programs. For example, support strategies include coach-assisted individual development planning, and assessment includes 180- and 360-degree feedback. Challenge strategies include the EDGE program, which is executed in collaboration with Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It features competency development aligned with BHCS’ strategic imperatives as taught by a cadre of C-suite leaders within BHCS and world-class instructors from across the nation such as Ram Charan. Capstone team projects for which a C-suite leader(s) serves as sponsor and for which team coaches provide guidance are executed, and results are presented to the BHCS Board and Executive Council.


The development ROI is impressive. In behavior change assessments, more than 90 percent of key stakeholders’ ratings indicate that delegates to EDGE demonstrate strong proficiency in their respective areas of development (93 percent favorable). Retention of key talent is 95 percent and their engagement is 98 percent favorable. Two of the capstone projects that were implemented reported an opportunity to decrease employee benefit utilization cost by $6.8 million to $14 million per year, while another targeted at improving care disparities estimated savings of $500,000 to $600,000 annually (net of infrastructure investment) for BHCS.

Lessons Learned

  • Reinforce top leadership involvement and support in enabling an enterprise-wide and longer-term talent vision and discussion.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to educate and communicate about the process.
  • Incentivize development.
  • Pilot and phase integration with other talent management processes.
  • Provide frequent and substantive talent reviews.
  • Offer additional support for development planning and follow-up.
  • Develop a clear and holistic communication strategy.
  • Make the user experience easier.
  • Measure outcomes rather than “check-the-box” activities.
  • Communicate successes.


By Judith R. Dotzman, Executive Director, and Debbie Geissel, Director, Professional Development, SPIN

Developing and maintaining trusting and respectful professional relationships is the core of SPIN’s organizational culture. Over the organization’s 40-year history, numerous mentoring programs have been implemented with success; however, these primarily were targeted to senior managers or those on the “fast track.”

In 2011, SPIN experienced a major transition in its leadership as the founding CEO and executive director retired and their mentored successors assumed these roles. A new era was beginning. As a first order of business, SPIN’s incoming CEO, Kathleen Brown McHale, presented her innovative platform for moving the organization forward under her leadership. An immediate priority was to invest in SPIN’s front-line supervisors through an intimate mentoring experience. Rather than simply holding individual mentoring sessions in offices, executives and senior managers were asked to spend time in programs with front-line supervisors experiencing firsthand how managers were performing and what challenges they were confronting.

A Life of Possibilities with 4 Pillars

To launch this program, McHale published guidelines for “time with” in programs and services and then reviewed them with her leadership team. The expectation was to spend time in programs and services to underscore the critical importance of developing relationships with supervisors, staff, and the people SPIN serves. The outcome is a two-way street whereby our direct-line employees and supervisors know the leaders and what they stand for, and leaders have better knowledge for decision-making. To further guide the organization in this endeavor and other strategic decisions, the CEO developed and articulated a new brand for the organization: a Life of Possibilities with 4 Pillars:

  1. People First
  2. Professionalism
  3. Performance Excellence
  4. Productivity

Specifically, McHale requested every executive to visit one home, classroom, or program operated by SPIN each month, and senior managers (who maintain a presence in their own programs) to visit quarterly. The visits centered on SPIN’s four Pillars through intimate discussion and observation to determine if the Pillars were evident. Following each visit, a mentoring session with the program supervisor occurred and the outcomes were shared; a formal report then was sent to the leadership team highlighting positive performance evidence, areas of improvement needed, and strategies for recommended follow-up.

Although enthusiastic about the CEO’s plan, SPIN’s leadership was faced with the challenge of spending time in more than 225 individualized programs. Because of the enormity and vast scope of SPIN’s unique programs servicing children and adults with a variety of disabilities, guidelines were established to ensure visits to all program locations were successful and yielded positive outcomes.

The CEO’s vision was that this activity would result in many positive outcomes, including the best real data available for decision-making by managers and improvement in the quality of our services based on mentoring, follow-up, and related activities from visits. Since this initiative was implemented, senior management and executives have made more than 125 visits to SPIN’s direct services. The information provided by these visits is developing an improved shared understanding for decision-making in the organization’s direction.

The visits also have offered SPIN’s leadership a new insight into each manager’s talents and skill set, as well as the challenges facing them. The richness of experience and learning that comes from visiting our programs cannot be substituted. The CEO believes a well-informed and engaged executive and senior management team will deliver a great organization. It is also seen as an important determinate in why SPIN employees voted SPIN as the Philadelphia region’s No. 2 Top Workplace in the large company category in 2012 as surveyed by The Philadelphia Inquirer.


  • Create and communicate a plan from the CEO and executive leadership.
  • Establish specific observation guidelines with department leads to ensure visits are well coordinated and not intrusive.
  • Schedule visits and stick to the schedule.
  • Find ways to incorporate your organization’s values, culture, and your viewpoint in a positive way.
  • Follow up immediately after the visit verbally with management if there is anything requiring immediate attention.
  • Create a report of observations and any actions or follow-up needed.
  • Ensure follow-up actions are completed through a feedback loop.
  • Maintain a personal log of your visits.

As a people-first organization, SPIN prides itself on delivering the highest-quality, best-practice services, and support. It is critical to be connected with the full workforce to achieve this outcome. This mentoring initiative has enabled SPIN to see its 4 Pillars in action and affords leaders the opportunity to make the right decisions using the most meaningful data to create a great organization while growing others.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.