Succession Planning In The Federal Public Health System

A succession planning exercise within the Prevention Research and Translation branch at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD) helped it identify the critical skills needed for future leadership positions.

In a 2003 report on succession planning within the federal government, the Government Accountability Office emphasized that organizations should go beyond only filling vacancies and strategically strengthen their workforce capacity (Government Accountability Office, 2003; Although large numbers of retirements are occurring and more are on the horizon, few federal agencies have developed succession plans to address employee development for current or future vacancies (Devlin P., 2014;

A succession planning exercise was undertaken at a branch level within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that can provide useful insights into the process of launching a succession planning initiative in other organizations. Here’s a look at how this process progressed.


In order to pro-actively address the pending loss of key supervisory positions, we undertook a succession planning exercise within the Prevention Research and Translation branch at the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD)—one of 10 Centers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The branch is made up of three teams that report to a branch chief. The need for succession planning is salient given that the branch chief and two of three team leads plan to retire by the end of 2017. The planning and execution of the exercise consisted of:

  1. Convening a planning group. The planning group for this exercise consisted of the branch chief, a health scientist from the branch who has been conducting research in succession planning, and a strategic workforce planning consultant.

  2. Reviewing the succession planning literature. From this review, we identified and adapted leadership domains (i.e., ability to inspire, communication, competence, intra/inter-personal skills, and results focused) that fit the context of a federal public health agency and could be used to guide the exercise (Grimm, B.L.; Watanabe-Galloway, S.; Britigan, D.H., Schumaker, A.M; “A qualitative analysis to determine the domains and skills necessary to lead in public health,” Journal of Leadership Studies, 2015;8(4):19-26).

  3. Communicating the need for succession planning. In a branch meeting, we discussed how the pending retirement eligibility of some leadership staff would result in vacancies in critical roles, so the employees were aware there would be some staff movement over the short term. The branch chief then introduced the idea of conducting succession planning exercises with three groups: one focused on the branch chief role and two focused on team lead roles for team leads who would be retiring soon. We explained that the objective of the exercise was the identification of key factors they felt would be critical for future branch chief and team lead roles. This would be done through facilitated group discussions.

  4. Presenting the domains and preparing branch staff for group discussions. Prior to the exercise, and depending on which group they were in, we asked each participating staff member to identify two factors under each domain they felt were critical to either the position of team lead or branch chief. We explained the exercise was forward focused, rather than a review of current and past leadership, and that staff should anticipate needs for a future position—given evolving programmatic and staffing needs. Staff had two weeks to thoughtfully consider their factors and write them down.

  5. Conducting 90-minute group discussions with the following groups:

  • Branch Chief group: We invited the three current team leads and the deputy branch chief to the discussion. The current branch chief did not attend.
  • Team 1 group: We invited all members to the discussion, since this was a small five-person team. The current team lead did not attend.
  • Team 2 group: Since this was a larger team, the team members elected four members to attend the discussion. The current team lead did not attend. Participating team members actively solicited prior input on factors for each domain from members not in attendance.

Exercise logistics included:

  • External, experienced facilitators moderated the group discussions. One moderator facilitated the Team 1 group discussion and the Branch Chief group discussion, while a second moderator facilitated the Team 2 group discussion.
  • Two note-takers were present at each discussion, and notes were transcribed.
  • Large sheets labeled with each domain were posted on the walls. The moderator asked each discussion participant to post his or her factors under the corresponding domain. Discussion participants then were put into pairs, asked to pick one domain, and organize factors within that domain into themes (i.e., “motivates staff” and “motivator” labeled as “motivation”). Participants engaged in extensive discussions about each domain, the factors identified for the domain, and the grouping of factors. New factors emerged in some instances.
  • Participants were asked to identify the three most critical factors for leadership positions.

In all sessions, leadership and management skills were identified as being among the most critical, rather than scientific or subject matter expertise that commonly is considered important for leadership positions in public health. Thus, skills likely relevant to organizations in all sectors were also relevant in this setting.

We presented a summary of findings from each team lead session to its respective team and findings from the branch chief session to the entire branch. These findings will be used to help develop interview questions for future team lead and branch chief positions. This exercise provides a way to integrate feedback from team members into the hiring process.

Alina L. Flores, DrPH, MPH, CHES, is a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. Joseph E. Sniezek, MD, MPH, joined the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities in 2008. Ronald Chapman, MSW, is CEO of Magnetic North LLC. He provides leadership consultation, organization development services, facilitation, and coaching in public health.