Archives for January 2013

The State of HR in Canada: 2011 Survey Results

In response to increasing demands from organizations, the skills and knowledge that HR professionals require in the workplace continue to shift. As many of our program participants are likely aware, HR professionals are now more involved in strategic roles that help to shape organizational culture, effectiveness, and design.

To target the professional development needs of HR practitioners, the IRC thought it was necessary to reach out to our HR community and gain insights on the complexities of the work HR professionals perform and the challenges they face in their work. We wanted to describe and analyze the state of the HR profession in Canada, based directly on the perspectives of practitioners.

In February 2011, the IRC surveyed HR professionals across Canada to glean their perspectives on HR, the challenges and priorities for HR departments, and the kinds of skills and knowledge that are perceived as critical for the practice. Our 53-question survey was divided into two sections: demographic information and perspectives on the profession. HR professionals were keen to share their insights; we collected over 450 complete survey responses.

This article provides a synthesis of some of our data. Please note that a complimentary copy of An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada: Executive Summary is available for download from the Queen’s IRC website.


 Executive Summary
An Inquiry into the State of HR: Executive Summary

The majority of our respondents, 73%, are female. Respondents are concentrated in the 46 to 55 age bracket, with 33.7% of respondents in this category. Years of HR experience vary amongst respondents, ranging from less than five years to more than 25 years. Job titles range from professional/technical through to CEO/President. Approximately 31% of respondents are HR generalists, while approximately 28% are senior leaders. In general, a respondent is likely to hold an undergraduate university degree (43.5%), a CHRP designation (52.1%), and belong to a provincial HR association (76.1%).

Our sample includes diverse organization sizes, with respondents employed in organizations with fewer than 100 employees to more than 5000 employees. There is a relatively even split in public and private sector representation: 43.7% of respondents work in the public sector, while 42.8% are part of the private sector. An additional 8.0% are from non-profit organizations.

We received many responses from the Prairie region; 66.3% of respondents are from Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. The high percentage of respondents from the Prairie region is due in part to the Human Resource Institute of Alberta (HRIA) offering to forward our survey to their membership. In addition, 19.3% of our survey respondents are from Ontario, 8.0% from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Prince Edward Island, and 4.2% from British Columbia. The IRC recognizes that there is a distinct lack of responses from Quebec. We suspect that this finding is due to the fact that our survey was only available in English. Moving forward, the IRC may conduct a bilingual survey.

Perspectives on the HR Profession

We now provide a summary of the HR activities in which respondents are involved, the perceived challenges, along with the immediate and long-range priorities for HR departments in Canada. Then, we present the skills and knowledge that HR professionals perceive as critical for their work.

Using a Likert scale, participants reported the extent to which they are currently involved in a select set of 16 HR activities, and also the extent to which they were involved in those same activities two years ago. With the exception of recruitment, on average HR professionals rated their current involvement higher than their involvement two years ago in all of the HR activities we listed. The five activities that were rated highest in current involvement were employee relations, employee engagement, organizational culture, employee training and learning, and change management.

To determine the top challenges faced by HR departments in organizations across Canada, participants were asked to rank order a list of 18 items. Almost three quarters of the respondents (73.8%) ranked talent management in their personal top-five list. Rounding out the rest of the top five were employee engagement (58.5%), succession planning (54.3%), change management (46.6%), and organizational culture creation/maintenance (42.1%). Further analysis showed that these rankings were consistent with no significant difference found based on region or between private and public sectors.

Despite the challenges HR departments encounter, 80.7% of respondents have an optimistic outlook on the future of the profession. This optimism is consistent across sectors and regions. We are encouraged by this optimism.

We then sought to determine the top three immediate priorities (i.e., within the next 12 months) for HR departments. We invited participants to cite the top three priorities for their HR departments. Based on the responses to this open-ended question, the immediate priorities facing HR departments include succession planning, employee engagement, talent management, and training, learning and development.

Similarly, we asked participants to list the top three long-range priorities (i.e., next three to five years) for their HR departments. The results suggest that the long-range priorities are comparable to the immediate priorities. The top three long-range priorities include succession planning, talent management, and recruitment.

Given an understanding of the challenges and priorities facing HR departments, what are the skills and knowledge that HR professionals deem critical for their work? To unpack the skills and knowledge required by HR professionals, we created two open-ended questions that allowed participants to cite their own answers. An interesting finding was that even though the questions were open-ended, themes did prevail in the data. It was clear that HR professionals share similar perspectives on the essential skills and knowledge for their work. Required skills for HR professionals include communication, the ability to think analytically, critically, and strategically, interpersonal skills, technical skills, and conflict resolution. Knowledge required by HR professionals includes business acumen, employment law/legislation, talent management, employee/labour relations, and a broad understanding of HR. Reflecting on this data, it is interesting to note that the skills and knowledge perceived as critical by HR professionals seem to exceed what is typically deemed as “traditional” HR functionalities.


Intuitively, HR is, at its core, about people. The role of HR includes, but is not limited to, engaging employees and supporting their professional development, helping employees to manage change, along with organizational culture creation and maintenance. These trends were evident in the top five HR challenges elicited by our respondents.

According to our survey, talent management is perceived as both a challenge and a priority for HR departments, including developing and implementing succession plans, as well as building the capacity of the organization, through effective learning strategies. As such, the IRC has elected to launch a Talent Management program in Fall 2011. The program is still in the development phase; however, the focus of Talent Management is devising effective strategies for recruiting, training, and developing an organization’s talent pool. The program will be designed to allow participants to acquire the skills and knowledge to build an effective talent management strategy for their own organization, discover gaps in existing recruitment and retention practices, and become an important internal resource and advocate on talent management.

In closing, the data collected in our recent HR survey have allowed the IRC to better understand and describe the state of the HR profession in Canada. As intended, the survey findings are helping the IRC to better match our program offerings with the professional development needs of our HR community. Now that we have collected baseline data, the IRC plans to conduct a similar HR survey every two years moving forward. This survey will allow the Centre to compare trends in the profession and continue to provide quality programming for our participants. Our Executive Summary has highlighted only a few of the findings. We intend to rely on the full dataset for future IRC work.

Download Executive Summary

Lifelong Learning: Advocating Professional Development

Lifelong learning is a catchphrase often used by many, but a concept practiced by few. As professionals look to not only increase their skill sets, but also to keep up with trends within their industry, it is increasingly important to maintain a high level of competence by continuing to learn. In many fields, such as human resources, professional organizations have been established to maintain a minimum standard for practitioners to achieve to ensure that the profession is held to a measurable level of competence. The CHRP is one example of a professional designation in Canada.

It is human nature to always question and seek knowledge. Most of our conversations are the sharing of or the request for information. We continually seek to expand our knowledge base and learn more about what interests us. As practitioners, we know all too well that at the end of any course we take or seminar we attend, our own theories start to develop and the quest for additional knowledge grows. This is why we must embrace learning and encourage it both professionally in our various workplaces, as well as personally, and apply it to our outside interests. Professional development programs and workplace learning strategies are ways in which employees can ensure that they continue to expand their knowledge and skills, thereby contributing to their lifelong learning. In this article, I discuss the benefits of professional development from an employer and employee perspective.

Why employees benefit from professional development

For the employee, professional development programs in the workplace offer more that just a simple perk to their employment. Psychologically, this type of learning lets the employees know that they are all there for a reason and that their worth to the organization goes beyond their current skill sets. In turn, employees recognize that their organization is willing to invest in them to ensure that they are the most competent and successful members they can be. This leads to higher morale and, in theory, results in higher productivity.

Professional development helps to retain employees

Employers can never be naive and think that employees are theirs forever and that none of them would ever think of “jumping ship” to work for a competitor. Nor can employers develop their training, learning, and development plans around this type of thinking. If employees are not satisfied with their role within the organization, they will leave. I think that organizations that encourage lifelong learning attract ambitious, self-motivated employees. For example, as individuals attend various training programs and “brag” about what their employer is doing to better equip them in their careers, word will spread, and the organization’s learning programs will become known by prospective candidates.

Investing in professional development facilitates employee loyalty

Compensation is a factor in attracting employees, but we are foolish to think that it is the governing factor. As employees, we like to have a nice pay cheque every week but we also like to have our employers value what we do. As employees move through professional development programs, they often see the value behind the courses and a greater link with the organization is established. The organization becomes more than just a place of work; it enables knowledge acquisition and freethinking. This weighs heavily on employees when faced with an alternate job offer. In fact, this could be the factor that retains an employee, regardless of the improved monetary package offered. Providing opportunities for personal and professional growth creates loyalty to the employer and can contribute to building a more stable and competent workforce.

Employee loyalty contributes to workforce capacity

In addition, employee loyalty may enhance capacity within the workforce. As employees’ fundamental skill sets are increased, additional duties are assumed, and more complex tasks are picked up in-house instead of relying on external assistance. Employees start to take on roles as resident subject matter experts and guide the organization through various projects. Whether it is organization design or change management, mediation or negotiation, labour relations or strategic grievance handling, proper training improves the overall effectiveness of the team. From an employer’s perspective, increased capacity and productivity result in fewer expenses incurred. The return on investment in employees’ professional development soon becomes evident.

It is important to note that learning must be a meaningful experience. Thus, both the employer and the employee must be active participants in the programming and both parties must determine how they can benefit from each other. The employee must recognize how the new skills that are acquired can be put to practical use within the organization. Similarly, the employer must play an active role in guiding employees’ learning and ensuring that knowledge transfers to the workplace.

Employers should invest in developing learning plans

As employers or decision makers, establishing a professional development or learning plan for each employee or each department is a time consuming task. It requires needs assessments, an inventory of current skills and training, and then builds on those. Duplicating courses and random workshops that do not necessarily fit within the professional development plan should be avoided. Having all employees in the same office attend the exact same courses is not a benefit to the employer or the employee.

Instead, rounding out the staff with programs that will interest them, can be applied in their work, and are purposeful is more in tune with an effective learning strategy that will benefit everyone. It’s important to remember that encouraging employee development through workplace learning benefits both the organization and the individual. It is not a form of praise or reprimand (i.e., not allowing participation as discipline), rather it should be viewed as a part of the employment package.

Lifelong learning benefits the most competent and dedicated team members

In some cases, your star employee will have the practical experience required for the job or role they are in, but lack formal credentials or training. Professional development programs offer that employee an opportunity to demonstrate and share their knowledge and skill sets with others through collaborative learning environments. This reinforces to the employee that their skill sets are on par with their peers, and gives the credentials that document abilities. In some cases, this confirmation is just enough of a boost in the member’s confidence level to move them to a higher capacity within the organization. Learning and affirming skills usually lead to the quest for more knowledge.

Making learning a priority

As employers attempt to attract the most qualified and talented employees to join their team, it is important to look within their own organization and find the hidden talent. Most employers do not have an inventory of what courses, programs, or seminars in which their staff members have engaged. In my view, creating a record of employee learning is essential. Failure to do so results in lost resources and may signal to the employee that their learning has no value to the organization. Utilization of a member’s newly acquired skill sets is motivating and provides the member with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Special projects assigned based on these new skills gives employees a feeling of community and creates a bond between them and the organization. Retention of skilled staff is an obvious desire for any organization. Professional development programs that promote lifelong learning should be viewed as tools for employee retention and to attract high caliber employees.

As a firm believer and participant in lifelong learning, it has been my experience that regardless of the course of study, there are always areas that can be applied to your workplace. From small lessons learned, to new processes to examine a problem. Lifelong learning constantly challenges us to adapt and explore outside of our comfort zone and apply our new skills in our workplace. Providing employees with professional development opportunities and encouraging lifelong learning has motivated and driven staff within my organization to excel and take on more complex projects and duties. This allows supervisors and management to pursue other organizational needs and challenges, knowing that their staff is better equipped to handle their day-to-day duties.

About the Author

Derik McArthurDerik McArthur began his career with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) after graduation from Confederation College with dual diplomas in Human Resources and Human Resources Management. Prior to attending college, he was an active member of the Canadian Forces Army Reserve working as a full-time infantry soldier.

His professional career began as an organizer with the union that included work throughout Canada and the United States. He progressed through the organization and was reassigned to member service where his responsibilities focused on grievance settlements and collective bargaining. In 2005, he was elected as president, RWDSU Canada, and as RWDSU International vice-president/Canadian director. The following year, he was elected to international vice-president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union – a union that represents 1.4 million members in North America. Most recently, Derik facilitated the merger of 11 local unions in Ontario into UFCW local 175. The amalgamated locals have formed the largest UFCW local union in North America with over 70,000 members.

In addition to his positions in the union, Derik sits on the Employment Insurance Board of Referees, and hears appeals from EI applicants that have been denied Employment Insurance benefits.

Derik is active in the community and is a founder of the Home for a Hero Project – an initiative that raised over $300,000 for a triple-amputee Sudbury soldier coming out of Afghanistan. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Sudbury and District Food Bank.

Outside his professional interests, he enjoys spending time with his wife and children and continues to enjoy working as an army reservist and infantry soldier with the 2nd Battalion Irish Regiment of Canada.

Derik holds a BA in Justice Studies from Royal Roads University and has completed his Organization Development, Labour Relations, and Organizational Capacity Certificates from Queen’s IRC and currently sits on the IRC Advisory Board. Derik is a coach at the IRC’s Labour Relations Foundations program.

Success through Succession: A Review of Recent Literature

In November 2012, Queen’s IRC launched a new program, Succession Planning, to an enthusiastic group of practitioners in Calgary. As an ice-breaking exercise, Queen’s IRC Director, Paul Juniper, asked participants to discuss their organizations’ plans in the event of a sudden loss of key leadership. While the discussion and ideas that came out of this exercise were stimulating and informative, they also confirmed two trends widely noted by practitioners, academics, and policy-makers alike. First, succession planning is increasingly critical to organizations of all sizes and in all industries or sectors. Second, most organizations have given succession planning some thought, but have yet to fully develop and implement an effective plan for the inevitable succession of managers and key employees at all levels.

This research brief complements the IRC’s recent focus on succession planning. It does this by providing an overview of contemporary academic perspectives on the need for effective succession plans. This review provides a helpful tool for practitioners and organizations seeking to develop, implement, maintain, or augment a succession plan that meets their organization’s specific needs. It includes an overview of effective elements in organizational succession plans, issues related to the succession of key leaders, the transfer of knowledge through succession planning, succession planning relative to the size of an organization, and succession planning in three components of the public sector (municipal administration, education, and health care).

Succession planning can be defined as a “systemic, long-term process of determining goals, needs, and roles within an organization and preparing individuals or employee groups for responsibilities relative to work needed within an organization” (Luna, 2012, p. 60). Succession planning was initially conceived of as a risk management strategy designed to mitigate the loss of key leaders in large organizations (Rothwell, 2010). Over time, however, succession planning has evolved into much more than this. Today, succession planning serves as a tool to manage knowledge and change, develop leadership capacity, build smart teams, and retain and deploy talent in a manner that helps an organization operate to its greatest potential (Groves, 2003). Doing so is increasingly important for several reasons. First, as Fink (2010) notes, individuals are becoming more and more strategic in their own career development and job searches. It is, therefore, increasingly important that organizations follow suit and develop strategies to ensure that they are able to attract and retain talent. Second, the complex nature of work and business in both the private and public sectors means that organizations cannot rely on the serendipitous replacement of talent, nor can they expect to have a pool of willing and qualified candidates ready and waiting, even during a recession (Fink & Brayman, 2006; Zepeda et al., 2012). Organizations must be proactive in identifying and developing qualified talent that can be called upon during both expected and unplanned succession events. Third, and importantly, planning for succession is necessary to maintain and develop knowledge and talent in a volatile political economy marked by international competition and the omnipresent need to be cost effective (Griffiths, 2012). By effectively planning for succession, organizations can realize cost savings and achieve the synergies necessary to thrive within the rapidly evolving contexts in which they operate. Finally, effective succession planning instills confidence in the employees of an organization (Bolt, 1989) and improves buy-in to the organization’s culture (Clunies, 2007). These are critical components not only of the successful operation of an organization on a day-to-day basis, but of the longer-term satisfaction and retention of employees.

Developing effective succession plans is also critical considering current demographic and economic trends. Many large companies and public sector organizations will face a dramatic turnover of key leaders in the next decade, as the ‘baby boomers’ (those born between 1945 and 1964) withdraw from the workforce en masse (Appelbaum et al., 2012). Ensuring that the wealth of knowledge accrued by this generation is transferred to younger generations—who will inevitably assume key leadership roles—with minimal impact on productivity is of the utmost importance. Moreover, the recent recession has exacerbated these challenges, as senior managers have delayed retirement in light of economic insecurity and the relaxation of mandatory retirement legislations (Luna, 2012; Masterson, 2011). This has prolonged managerial tenure in the short-term, while disrupting the leadership pipeline in the long-term (Leland et al., 2012). Without an effective plan for succession alongside increased retirements, organizations are likely to face crises in leadership. One consequence of this is that there may eventually be more urgency to select and develop managers from a smaller pool of applicants and with a steeper learning curve. Organizations are also more likely to face an increased frequency of succession events and leadership vacuums, which are fraught with risk and tend to lead to reactive (rather than proactive) decisions (Leland et al., 2012). Considering all of these factors, it is increasingly important to develop an effective succession plan sooner rather than later, and it is never too late to get started.

Elements of Effective Succession Plans

It is necessary to distinguish between a succession plan and an effective succession plan. Moreover, it is absolutely critical to understand the barriers to developing and implementing an effective succession plan. These barriers include (but are by no means limited to): organizational culture, low ascribed priority from top management and key leaders, insufficient resources for development and implementation, inadequate rewards (or a lack of understanding of the often hard-to-measure benefits of succession planning), ‘siloed’ employee groups and limited intra-organizational mobility or opportunity, a lack of role models or framework plans to provide a point of reference, and intensified competition for talent and leadership from other sectors or organizations (NAPA, 1997). Organizational complexity and both intra- and extra-organizational politics may also act as barriers to effective succession planning (Leland et al., 2012). In short, giving consideration to these barriers and their impacts is an imperative step in developing an effective succession plan.

A great deal of literature outlines the key aspects of an effective succession plan. Perhaps the most critical overarching requirement of any succession plan is that it is proactive and designed as part of an organization’s broader strategic plan (Rothwell, 2010). More specifically, effective succession plans should be prepared earlier rather than later, include adequate time for preparation on the behalf of all parties involved, be incorporated alongside all other improvement or restructuring plans, outline the roles and responsibilities of all parties (not just top management), give adequate consideration to present and anticipated needs, and be transparently linked to necessary standards and competencies (Hargreaves & Fink, 2006). Furthermore, the most effective plans pay close attention to managerial and leadership development at all levels of the organization, receive ongoing commitment from top management, are well communicated throughout the organization, dictated by organizational strategy, and, importantly, incorporated into recruitment, selection, retention, and development mechanisms (Reid & Gilmour, 2009). Continuity is also crucial; it is not unknown for a well-designed succession plan to exist on paper only to fade away after facing initial challenges, or more commonly, to be only partially or unevenly implemented (Charan, 2008).

It is also necessary to design a succession plan that accurately reflects the needs of an individual organization. In particular, the size of the company and their expected growth rate are important considerations when designing effective succession plans (Zepeda et al., 2012). For example, a highly rigid and formalized succession plan may be inconsistent with the needs of smaller employers, especially those with few formal leadership positions and those that thrive on flexibility. Rather, a plan focused on the diffusion of knowledge—both codified and tacit—throughout the organization may be most effective. Conversely, larger organizations and those that expect a moderate to high rate of growth or expansion in the immediate future may find more benefit in defining the skills and knowledge necessary to achieve success in specific roles in order to identify individual employees who may be willing and able to assume those roles. Moreover, private sector organizations tend to concern themselves more with planning for the succession of top management (Pissari et al., 2010), while public sector organizations—which often have well-defined job ladders and organizational designs—emphasize promotion from within at all levels as a means to develop and retain talent (Reilly, 2008).

Succession Planning and Key Leaders

The succession of senior management—namely the CEO—is the focus of a significant proportion of research on succession planning. One of the primary questions in this regard surrounds the decision to hire CEOs internally or through an external search, and their immediate impact on strategic change and organizational performance (Hutzshcenreuter et al., 2012). Each has advantages and disadvantages. Appointing a CEO from outside the organization is generally perceived to be prudent when a significant change in organizational strategy is necessary. Not only does a successor from outside the organization bring new perspectives, he or she is also devoid of social ties and other ‘baggage’ (Kesner & Dalton, 1994). However, outside succession often results in greater turnover of other members of the executive team than inside succession. Executives may feel demoralized for being passed over in favour of an outsider (Helmich & Brown, 1972) or loyalty to the predecessor may cause them to resign (Friedman & Saul, 1991). New leaders may also feel pressured to make changes simply as a means to demonstrate their authority. In so doing, they may reverse or restructure potentially productive decisions made by their predecessor, or reorient firm strategy in a manner consistent with their own experience rather than with the needs of the organization (Weisbach, 1995). Furthermore, it is widely noted that an organization can only digest a certain amount of change at once. If a succession event that results in the appointment of an external CEO comes during or immediately following a significant amount of change or restructuring, his or her ability to positively affect or implement new changes will be limited (Hutzschenreuter et al., 2012).

Internal candidates are often perceived to be the best choice in the succession of a CEO in organizations that are highly complex, multi-divisional, and international (see Conger & Fulmer, 2003). Not surprisingly, they are also thought to be a relatively safe choice for firms that are generally satisfied with their strategic direction and those that are interested in seeing through the development and implementation of a strategic plan already underway. However, internally-promoted CEOs have a diminished capacity to exercise real change to organizational strategy in the short-term (Bigley & Wiersema, 2002). The promotion of ‘heir apparent’ or pre-determined candidates may also be viewed as ineffective favoritism (Ibarra, 2005), especially in cases where the successor had a close personal relationship with the predecessor, and in the public sector (Luna, 2012).

Succession Planning and Knowledge Transfer

Succession planning is an extremely useful tool to help manage the transfer and diffusion of knowledge within an organization. Knowledge, both tacit and codified, is one of the most important sources of competitive advantage in contemporary organizations (Pfeffer, 1998). Additionally, succession planning can be used as a means to generate knowledge in order to achieve cost and operational efficiencies (Peet, 2012). Several research projects examine innovative ways to access, transfer, and generate knowledge within organizations in a number of different contexts. Not surprisingly, the potential loss of knowledge via retirement is of great concern, particularly in the private sector.

Koc-Menard (2009) suggests phased or flexible retirement arrangements, as well as corporate alumni networks to help manage knowledge. Appelbaum et al. (2012b) describe the value in providing training to senior leaders with plans to retire in the next five years. They note that training should not necessarily be directed to the acquisition of hard skills or competencies, but rather, should focus on soft skills related to public speaking, teaching, and multi-generational communication strategies. Senior leaders could then be tasked with running training, learning, and mentoring sessions for potential successors, concomitantly transferring, and generating knowledge while maintaining high levels of motivation and affirmation. Peet (2012) examines in detail the innovative practice of generative knowledge interviewing (GKI). The GKI process involves experiential-based or story-telling interviews between potential successors and senior leaders. The potential successor, or interviewer, attempts to “dwell within” the narrative of the senior leader being interviewed in a manner that allows them to document and verify the core capacities and key knowledge necessary to perform the tasks of the interviewee (p. 49). Peet also suggests that the GKI is best conducted on an ongoing (yet finite) basis. In one instance central to her research, she found that the GKI process resulted in immediate savings and benefits as a result of a better organizational understanding of the knowledge and capacities required for success in individual roles.

Succession Planning and Organization Size

The larger and more complex an organization is, the more essential it is to have an effective succession plan. Firms that fit this description are likely to incur greater costs when external candidates assume key leadership positions (Naveen, 2006). This is due not only to the resources directed to the job competition, but more importantly, to the high costs associated with the transfer of organization-specific knowledge to the successor. In these cases, an effective succession plan should meet several criteria (Conger & Fulmer, 2003). First, responsibility and commitment to the plan must be assumed not only by HR professionals and the executive team, but by local unit and division managers, and everyone in between. Without active commitment from top management and regular measurement of progress and process by HR, unit leaders may see more value in hiding or hoarding those with the most potential.

On the other hand, an effective succession plan encourages unit or division managers to identify potential high performers and leaders, knowing that apparent successors exist in the event that key local personnel or promoted. Moreover, large organizations are likely to find value in developing a succession plan that identifies ‘linchpin’ positions or roles that are at once critical to the organization and provide managers with exposure to multiple facets of the business, that focuses on the development of broadly-conceived skill sets through job rotation and mentoring, and that is flexible enough to meet the needs of a dynamic business environment. For example, Conger and Fulmer (2003) note that of the best practice companies involved in their study (Bank of America, Dow Chemical, and Eli Lilly), none expected their current plan to exist for more than one year without modification or revision.

Succession planning is also particularly important in small manufacturing enterprises, family-owned businesses, and the increasing number of highly specialized organizations that provide support for larger, coordinating firms (as examples, these organizations are particularly prevalent in Canada’s mining and energy sectors). For many of these firms, the loss of key individuals would jeopardize profitability or even the ability of the organization to continue operating. Smaller firms may also lack the flexibility and buying power of larger organizations, and are often unable to offer equally competitive wage and benefit packages or opportunities for advancement (O’Gorman, 2006). Moreover, in an era where profit margins are often razor thin, the owners and managers of smaller firms are unlikely to have the time to develop and implement a comprehensive succession plan. However, some type of succession planning remains important for smaller organizations, especially considering the aging workforce and skill shortages in several critical areas (Burke, 2011).

When planning for succession in smaller organizations, it is crucial to understand succession as a series of change processes over time, rather than a singular event (Bjomberg & Nicholson, 2012). Successors may be identified earlier and more explicitly, and may be afforded more control and autonomy than in larger organizations with more and more highly specific roles to fill. The succession process may therefore take place over a number of years and through a number of stages (Chrisman et al., 1998). This permits the development of critical skills under the watchful eye of more experienced owners and managers.

Succession Planning in the Public Sector

Municipal Administration

Succession planning in municipal administration has several particularities. The most notable of these is the fact that even in the most stable municipal governments, there is regular turnover in key leaders (Leland et al., 2012). Therefore, it is often beyond the mandate of elected leaders to plan for succession, as it may be outside their scope of work. Furthermore, successors may seek to implement initiatives that are wildly different than their predecessors, which may lead to succession plans that are ultimately scrapped and that constitute an inefficient use of scarce resources. Fiscal constraints and calls for austerity have also created a situation that limits the time that HR professionals can spend planning for succession, as they are generally and rightfully more concerned with fulfilling immediate, day-to-day obligations, than planning for an uncertain future. The shroud of politics is also a major consideration in municipalities, especially when promotions and advancement are considered. Research by Jarell and Pewitt (2007) suggests several courses of action and considerations for those seeking to plan for succession in municipalities. First, they note that managers can insulate themselves from the vagaries of politics by using outside consultants to provide objective assistance in developing a plan. They also note that having frank and open conversations about retirement—especially with older managers—is increasingly important to effective succession planning in municipal administration.


Challenges in succession planning in both K-12 and post-secondary education are widely documented (Luna, 2012; Sweeney, 2012; Wallin, 2007; Zepeda et al., 2012). In both instances, researchers discuss how the role of educational leaders—including public school principals, school boards directors and superintendents, and university department heads and senior administrators—are increasingly complex and less desirable to preferred candidates. Compounding this is the fact that the majority of educators entered the profession to work as such, and do not necessarily possess the willingness or formal training that meet the needs of today’s education institutions. At the same time, educational leaders are being recognized as increasingly integral to a sector confronting calls for reform and restructuring from multiple fronts. Greater consideration for effective succession planning in education is therefore critical. However, doing so has proven difficult for several systemic and political reasons, including those mentioned above, as well as the public perception that time and resources spent on anything but the direct delivery of educational services constitutes administrative bloat and an irresponsible use of tax dollars (Greene et al, 2010). Public education institutions also lack the flexibility of private businesses in recruiting and hiring leaders and senior administrators, and are generally required to be more transparent and compliant with equal opportunity hiring practices (Zepeda et al., 2012). They also have relatively high rates of succession events, which can be disruptive or at best distracting when done on an ad hoc basis (Wahlstrom et al., 2010).

What, then, can be done to improve succession planning in the education sector? Identifying successors for educational leadership positions tends to be taken on by individual champions rather than by institutions as a whole (Caldwell, 2007). This, however, does not constitute a long-term solution to the challenges facing the sector. In public education, where several well-defined levels of management exist, it is important to engage in succession planning at all levels. Also important is a need to understand the complex labour relations climate in public education, where teachers are unionized almost exclusively and where union density among support staff is much higher than average. Demystifying and providing support for successors in this aspect of education may help increase the pool of willing successors. In short, an effective succession plan in the education sector can create a better informed and more qualified employee base that understands the needs of the organization and demonstrate a greater willingness to take on leadership roles (Wallin, 2007).

Health Care

Skill and worker shortages as a result of improper succession planning can result in inadequate staffing and poor performance in all aspects of the delivery of health services; something that is increasingly essential to an aging Canadian population. In particular, evidence demonstrates that effective succession planning and the quality of care in nursing are inextricably linked (Needleman et al., 2012). However, one of the most pressing challenges facing health care practitioners—particularly in hospital settings—is maintaining adequate leadership. According to Griffiths (2012), the most important step in addressing leadership shortcomings in health care is to actively recruit employees with demonstrated leadership ability, and to foster that ability from the outset. Moreover, the vast majority of health care practitioners have strong educational backgrounds, often with a focus on problem-solving and group learning techniques. In a study of succession planning at the world-class University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, Wolf et al. (2006) found a multi-faceted plan that incorporates the identification of different types of leaders (e.g. operational, strategic), ongoing employee self-assessments of competencies, and mechanisms to identify competency and leadership gaps throughout the organization. Not only did this plan improve general performance and morale within this large hospital, but led to an initial return on investment of $500,000 in the first year, and a projected savings of $38,000,000 in the long term!


This literature review provides an overview of several key areas of research related to succession planning. What is most evident is that there is significant value in developing and implementing succession plans, so long as care is taken to ensure the plan fits the organizational context. Factors such as organizational structure and design, workforce demographics, firm size, and sector are important considerations in developing and implementing an effective and sustainable succession plan. The capture and transfer of important tacit knowledge related to the organization and its individual roles are also an important aspect of succession planning and the focus of a great deal of research. By engaging with succession planning as a tool for knowledge management, organizations can not only retain the expertise of key employees, but actually build upon it to create value, cost efficiencies, and improved employee morale.


About the Author

Brendan Sweeney, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Queen's IRC

Dr. Brendan Sweeney has over ten years of experience teaching and researching labour relations in Canada and the US, with a particular emphasis on the forest industry and public education. In addition to Queen’s, Brendan has experience working and teaching at McMaster University, the University of Washington, and the University of Manitoba. Brendan’s research has been widely recognized, and he has received several awards, including a Fulbright Fellowship, the Labor and Employment Relations’ Association’s 2012 Best Paper Award, the University of Manitoba Teaching Excellence Award, and the Canadian Association of Geographers’ 2010 New Scholar Award for Excellence in Publication. Brendan’s research is featured or forthcoming in almost a dozen high-profile academic journals.

Brendan also has extensive experience as a high-performance athlete and coach. In addition to a distinguished collegiate lacrosse career, Brendan has coached men’s and women’s lacrosse at Queen’s (earning the 2005 OUA Coach of the Year Award) and women’s lacrosse at the University of Washington. He currently coaches both the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams at McMaster and the Burlington Chiefs Sr. A. women’s lacrosse club. He also received his high-performance coaching certification from the NCCP in May 2012.



Appelbaum, S., Benyo, C., Gunkel, H., Ramadan, S., Sakkal, F. and Wolff, D. 2012. Transferring corporate knowledge via succession planning: analysis and solutions – Part 1. Industrial and Commercial Training, 44(5), pp. 281-289.

Appelbaum, S., Benyo, C., Gunkel, H., Ramadan, S., Sakkal, F. and Wolff, D. 2012b. Transferring corporate knowledge via succession planning: analysis and solutions – Part 2. Industrial and Commercial Training, 44(7), pp. 379-388.

Bigley, G. and Wiersema, M. 2002. New CEOs and corporate strategic refocusing: how experience as heir apparent influences the use of power. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47(4), pp. 707-727.

Bjomberg, A. and Nicholson, N. 2012. Emotional ownership: the next generation’s relationship with the family firm. Family Business Review, 25(4), pp. 374-390.

Bolt, J. F. (1989). Executive development: a strategy for corporate competitiveness. New York: Harper and Row.

Burke, R. 2011. Human resource management in small- and medium-sized enterprises: benefits and challenges. In Cooper, C. and Burke, R. (eds.) Human resource management in small businesses. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, pp. 10-67.

Caldwell, A. 2007. Elements of effective succession planning: a working paper for the UCEDDs. Silver Springs, MD: Association of University Centers on Disabilities.

Charan, R. 2008. Leaders at all levels. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chrisman, J., Chua, J., and Sharma, P. 1998. Important attributes of successors in family businesses: an exploratory study. Family Business Review, 11(1), pp. 19-34.

Clunies, J. 2007. Benchmarking succession planning and executive development in higher education: is the academy ready now to employ these corporate paradigms? Journal of Academic Leadership, 2(4), pp. 321-340.

Conger, J. and Fulmer, R. 2003. Developing your leadership pipeline. Harvard Business Review, 81(12), pp. 76-84.

Fink, D. 2010. The succession challenge: building and sustaining leadership capacity through succession management, Sage: Thousand Oaks.

Fink, D. and Brayman, C. 2006. School leadership succession and the challenges of change.

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Friedman, S. and Saul, K. 1991. A leader’s wake: organization member reactions to CEO succession. Journal of Management, 17(3), pp. 619-642.

Greene, J., Kisida, B. and Mills, J. 2010. Administrative bloat at American universities: the real reason for high costs in higher education (Policy Report No. 239). Phoenix, AZ: Goldwater Institute.

Griffiths, M. 2012. Effective succession planning in nursing: a review of the literature. Journal of Nursing Management, 20, pp. 900-911.

Groves, K. 2003. Integrating leadership development and succession planning best strategies. Journal of Management Development, 26(3), pp. 239-260.

Hargreaves, A. and Fink, D. (2006), Sustainable Leadership. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Helmich, D. and Brown, W. 1972. Successor type and organizational change in the corporate enterprise. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(3), pp. 371-381.

Hutzshcenreuter, T. Kleindienst, I. and Greger, C. 2012. How new leaders affect strategic change following a succession event: a critical review of the literature. The Leadership Quarterly, 23, pp. 729-755.

Ibarra, P. 2005. Succession planning: an idea whose time has come. Public Management, 87, pp. 18-24.

Jarell, K. and Pewitt, K. 2007. Succession planning in government: case study of a medium-size city. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 27, pp. 297-309.

Kesner, I and Dalton, D. 1994. Top management turnover and CEO succession: an investigation of the effects on turnover and performance. Journal of Management Studies, 31(5), pp. 701-713.

Koc-Menard, S. 2009. Transfer after retirement: the role of corporate alumni networks. Development and Learning in Organizations, 23(2), p. 9.

Leland, S., Carman, J. and Swartz, N. 2012. Understanding managerial succession planning at the local level: a study of the opportunities and challenges facing cities and counties. National Civic Review, Summer, pp. 44-50.

Luna, G. 2012. Planning for an American higher education leadership crisis: the succession issue for administrators. International Leadership Journal, 4(1), pp. 56-79.

Masterson, K. 2011. Encouraging faculty retirement goes beyond the financial, college presidents say. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 57(28), A19.

National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA). 1997. Managing succession and developing leadership: growing the next generation of public service leaders. NAPA: Washington, DC.

Naveen, L. 2006. Organizational complexity and succession planning. Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis, 41(3), pp. 661-683.

Needleman, J. Buerhaus, P., Mattke, S., Stewart, M. and Zelevinsky, K. 2002. Nurse-staffing levels and the quality of care in hospitals, New England Journal of Medicine, 346, pp. 1715-1722.

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Training Employees is Key to Effective Union-Management Relationships

For practitioners in Queen’s University’s Human Resources (HR) department, the past two years have brought about a number of changes in the way they do their jobs. Two years ago, there were four union contracts at the University, and today, the tenth contract is being negotiated. With about 80% of the University’s employees now unionized, Al Orth, Associate Vice-Principal (Human Resources) at Queen’s University, says the environment has changed significantly. The University had to think ahead about how it was going to support its employees in this new world. “For the vast majority of our supervisors and managers, managing in a unionized environment will be a new experience,” Al says.

Al immediately saw the importance of investing in training for the front-line workers who will be dealing with the application of the collective agreements on a daily basis. “It is important that we, as an institution, provide this kind of background, and train individuals in these key management and supervisory roles to continue to build positive employee relations.”

With the goal of achieving a respectful and productive work environment, the Queen’s HR department reached out to one of the University’s own Centres, the Industrial Relations Centre (IRC), to provide training for the University’s supervisors and managers. Al was familiar with the IRC’s programs, including the Managing Unionized Environments (MUE) program, and says choosing the IRC to provide the training was a natural partnership.

Queen’s IRC Director, Paul Juniper, says that the IRC is very happy to be working with Queen’s HR on this university-wide initiative. “Our commitment to adult learning principles and skill-based training is recognized across Canada and now, in Kingston, at our home institution. The opportunity to work with HR professionals is why the IRC exists, so it is particularly pleasing for us to work at home with Queen’s HR.”

In August 2012, the IRC ran four, two-day custom versions of its Managing Unionized Environments program for University staff. Additional programs for December 2012, January 2013, and February 2013 were then added. The unique program is facilitated by Gary Furlong, a mediator who has spent many years teaching collective bargaining to union, management, and joint union-management teams. He has often been asked to help rebuild union-management relationships that have broken down, and knows first-hand why an effective union management relationship is so critical to an organization.

“One of the key reasons for that breakdown is a lack of understanding of what an effective union-management relationship is, how the collective agreement operates, and even what the collective agreement says.” Developing the skills to manage this relationship is key to creating a strong, effective work environment, according to Gary.

In the program, Gary emphasizes the critical relationship between front-line leadership in management and front-line union representation.

“The IRC’s approach to labour relations is rooted in a philosophy of strong collaboration, combined with a set of practical skills and tools that all front-line leaders can apply immediately in many day-to-day situations,” says Gary. “This collaborative approach fits the academic and collegial culture of an institution like Queen’s very effectively.”

While the MUE program is typically offered as an open-enrollment program, the University chose to have a custom program so that the content could be tailored to its specific needs. Stephanie Noel, Queen’s IRC Business Development Manager, works with clients to design content. “When we design a custom program in-house, we are able to identify the top two or three organizational hotspots in addition to the content we deliver with every MUE public program.” Stephanie says that Queen’s IRC considers both the management and union perspectives, and then creates specific scenarios to teach participants the best way to approach the key issues in the organization.

Both Paul and Stephanie feel that this approach delivers high value for an organization like Queen’s University.

Al agrees, and is pleased that the custom program allowed the University to bring very current and relevant information to its employees. “It’s a unique program because it provides both management and union perspectives. There’s no other program like that, so we are fortunate to be able to provide that type of training to our supervisors and managers.”

Al said that, going into the training, many managers and supervisors hadn’t had any exposure to unions, and they were unsure of how things would change. “It helped them to better understand union-management relations, showed that they can work, and how they can work positively.” Participants learned that the relationship doesn’t need to change. “They still need to practice good HR skills, and it can still be an environment that is founded on positive employee relations.”

Participants with all levels of experience are able to benefit from this training. “For a newer supervisor or manager, the understanding of how a collective agreement operates and how human rights work in the workplace were seen to be very helpful,” says Gary. “For more experienced supervisors and managers, the focus on performance management, along with the more advanced discipline handling skills is high value. Overall, however, demystifying the union presence and union relationship was welcomed by all participants.”

Valerie Bartlett, Resources and Communications Officer in the Department of Medicine at Queen’s, felt like she learned a lot from the MUE program. “It has shown me the shift from a confrontational relationship to a true partnership.”

Shannon Hill, Learning and Development Specialist with Queen’s HR, also noted the valuable opportunity to meet colleagues from other departments. “It is great for networking, and also provides us with colleagues we can call when we need some help, and to share best practices.”

Gary is pleased to help the University create a smooth transition to high-quality union relations. He offers some advice for labour relations professionals who are new to managing in a unionized workplace.

  1. Read the Collective agreement – First and foremost, read, understand, and don’t be afraid of the Collective Agreement. It is framework that helps to define and support the working relationship of both parties. When seen as a way to ensure both the fair protection of employee rights along with helping deliver a productive and effective working relationship, a unionized environment can be a strong enabler of success. If management sees the union as a resource to help build a strong workplace, and if the union sees management as a critical leadership role helping build a successful organization, both parties will thrive.
  2. Train your leaders – Take the time and effort to train front-line leadership on both sides, management and union. Enable and support the success of the front-line leadership, and the organization will thrive.

In 2012, the IRC delivered five, custom MUE programs for Queen’s University, with approximately 150 participants in total. With more programs scheduled for 2013, the IRC is pleased to offer this exceptional learning experience to many more Queen’s supervisors and managers.

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