Successful Professionalization: What Can We Learn From Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985)?

 What Can We Learn From Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985)?In this article, we take one of the more interesting and useful models of professionalization and apply it to the Human Resources field to see what insights can be had.

There are a number of models of professionalization, and of those one of the more interesting and useful models is that of Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985). What makes this model so interesting and useful is that unlike other models it has a functional approach rather than a descriptive approach—that is, it looks at the process of professionalization (see figure 1). We should introduce a caveat at the start, however. The Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985) model is, after all, just a model. The model is derived from observation and reasoning but not empirical data. Indeed, in regards to professionalization, despite the search for general principles, each situation needs to be considered as a case study. The point is that models of professionalization like the one proposed by Forsyth & Danisiewicz (1985) should be considered for the insights they may bring about, but they are not ‘laws’ and are not necessarily correct or the only way things can happen.

The Coaching ‘Explosion’: Exploring the Growing Field of Coaching, and the Value it Brings to HR

 Exploring the Growing Field of Coaching, and the Value it Brings to HR Have you ever wondered why the field of coaching is growing so fast? Although it has been around for ages, it is currently enjoying a worldwide surge in popularity, on both the professional and personal fronts. So how do we explain this sudden craze?

The value of coaching has never been in doubt as, over the centuries, it has more than proven itself. The difference is that now, more people “get it” and understand how to use it effectively.

Coaching has always been a cornerstone of development, when seeking to turn novices into qualified practitioners. One such system is apprenticeship, first developed in the Middle Ages: “A master craftsman was entitled to employ young people as an inexpensive form of labour, in exchange for providing food, lodging and formal training in the craft. Most apprentices aspired to becoming master craftsmen on completion of their contract (usually a term of seven years), but a significant proportion would never acquire their own workshop.”1

The objective was, not only to transfer knowledge, but to enhance know-how (requiring extensive practice), and sharpen judgment (requiring judicious coaching). For instance, chefs need not only to know a recipe; they must be able to successfully make it, so that it turns out perfect… every time. This implies in-depth knowledge of ingredients’ properties, and mastery of cooking techniques.

Although the apprenticeship system started in trades, it is also used in credentialed professions, such as accounting, law, medicine, and dentistry, where students complete internships to ensure their proficiency in execution.

Today, coaching is not limited to trades and certified professions. It is widely used in workplaces, as employers appreciate its value for development, performance improvement, career progression, and transition support. However, this wasn’t always the case: initially, coaching was unfortunately used for remedial purposes, the last stop before termination for poor performers. As a result, it got a bad reputation, as did the coaches. Fortunately, the marketplace now understands that coaching is not a magical “quick fix”, but a partnership for growth, which requires time and commitment from all parties.

Likewise, the number of individuals hiring personal coaches has skyrocketed, making it a common practice. People find coaching helps them reach their goals, improve themselves, achieve greater fulfillment, and enhance their creativity.

To summarize, coaching is all about optimizing the two Ps: Performance and Potential, a satisfying and worthwhile endeavour for individuals and for organizations.

Origins of Coaching

The English term coach refers to a medium of transport, such as a carriage. The practice of using the term coaching to mean an instructor or trainer arose around 1830 in Oxford University to refer to a tutor who carries a student through an exam.2 Coaching thus describes the process to “transport people from where they are, to where they want to be”.3 The first use of the term in relation to sports came in 1861.4

Coaching is now a way of life in sports and arts, where success primarily depends on how talent performs. As a result, athletes and artists benefit from considerable coaching in order to reach their full potential. Athletes might be coached by nutritionists, sports psychologists and fitness trainers; and actors, by vocal, movement and dialect coaches. For example, a gifted tennis player like Eugénie Bouchard received more attention, and at an earlier age than others less gifted.5

The greater the talent, the more focus it gets. It’s not about compensating for deficiencies, but achieving mastery. For instance, when Benedict Cumberbatch was a boy, his drama teacher, Martin Tyrell, called him “the best schoolboy actor he had ever worked with.”6 During his formative years, Benedict’s extraordinary talent received special attention from the UK’s acting development system, eventually turning him into the best actor of his generation.7

Unfortunately, this talent/focus principle is not as well understood in other sectors, where the emphasis is often on improving poor performers, which is a frustrating endeavour for all involved.

American educational psychologist Donald Clifton conducted several studies of top performers beginning in the 1960s. He observed that “people with strong talent in a specific activity can quickly achieve the equivalent of 7/10 performance. They can then build on these strengths to embark on the exponential climb to reaching 10/10”.8

As a result, he challenged the deficit model of development which paid lip service to people’s strengths, focusing instead on deficiencies. Clifton came to the following conclusions:

  • “People’s greatest room for growth is in the area of their strengths. Therefore, ‘investing’ in your top talents will pay off greater dividends than investing in average or minimal ones: people can only excel by maximizing their strengths.
  • This doesn’t mean ignoring weaknesses… But ‘weakness fixing’ is about damage control, not development… Damage control can prevent failure, but it will never elevate anyone to excellence…”9

This led to the world-renowned Strengths Finder10 system, based on this simple approach:

Strengths Finder system


Identifying talent and investing in its development will result in building a solid strength which will lead to consistent performance. Think Sidney Crosby!!! Coaching works best when developing talent and potential, but not so well when compensating for deficiencies, although it does help.

Not surprisingly, the field of coaching exploded once this connection became explicit. Therefore, coaching’s expansion is firmly anchored in the “early 1970s Human Potential Movement,11 based on cultivating extraordinary potential which lies largely untapped in most people. Fully actualized potential enables individuals, not only to experience an exceptional quality life, but to make important contributions, assisting others and society to release their own potential. Since the mid-1990s, coaching has developed into an independent discipline. Professional Associations such as The International Coach Federation12 in North America, and The European Coaching and Mentoring Council13 have established credentialing standards.”14

Coaching and HR

HR Professionals have been coaching, formally or informally, since the dawn of the profession. Today, coaching is increasingly viewed as a desirable HR skill set for several reasons:

  • Employees frequently seek HR coaching to find a way forward with various issues: solving a problem, advancing their career, enhancing their skills, gaining confidence, navigating transitions, resolving conflicts, getting unstuck, etc.
  • Managers also seek HR coaching to better manage performance and develop potential. For instance, preparing for a coaching session with an employee. This involves growing coaching capability, scenario planning, and rehearsing for the session.
  • Finally, HR pros are frequently involved in performance management interventions which require solid coaching skills.

Other factors contribute to fueling the coaching “burning platform” in the workplace:

  • Enhancing leadership capacity for both designated and distributed leaders before baby boomers exit the workplace. This has produced significant growth in leadership coaching of all stripes: executive, peer, top down, bottom up, and team. For instance, Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO)15 fosters community coaching amongst its members. It is a key factor in their considerable success.
  • Dealing with the VUCA world. The US military created this acronym to describe the world of the 21st century: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.16 This fast moving environment requires agile organizations populated with employees who can make the right decisions at the level where action occurs. Coaching is a great tool to build this capacity.
  • Peer coaching is becoming increasingly popular in both formal and informal iterations. For instance, it is widely used by police forces to provide development and support. Cops Coach17 offers a framework which has proven very beneficial in this line of work where emergencies, crises and violence and disasters occur every day.


HR Professionals are pivotal in making coaching a way of life and a culture in their organizations, to increase agility, innovation, resilience and success.

Here is some food for thought from Brainy Quote:18

  • “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage“. Jack Welsh
  • “At Facebook, we try to be a strengths-based organization, which means we try to make jobs fit around people rather than make people fit around jobs. We focus on what people’s natural strengths are and spend our management time trying to find ways for them to use those strengths every day.” Sheryl Sandberg
  • “Every successful organization has to make the transition from a world defined primarily by repetition, to one primarily defined by change. This is the biggest transformation in the structure of how humans work together since the Agricultural Revolution.” Bill Drayton

Queen’s IRC has introduced a Coaching Skills program, which offers hands-on learning opportunities to develop and implement coaching skills for a range of situations in the workplace. Participants will explore several methodologies and their impact, and learn how to apply proven models to facilitate conversation and improve performance at all organizational levels.


About the Author

Francoise Morissette, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Françoise Morissette has been a facilitator at Queen’s IRC since 1994, and was made a Fellow in 2006. She played a key role in developing and implementing the Queen’s IRC’s Organizational Development curriculum intended for OD practitioners, and teaches on the OD Foundations and Coaching Skills programs. As a consultant, Françoise is a major contributor to the field of Organizational Development, with a major emphasis on leadership. Using a range of interventions, she helps individuals, organizations and communities enhance their leadership capacity. She regularly presents at major conferences in both official languages, both in Canada and abroad. She is the co-author of Made in Canada Leadership, a book that is the product of a large scale research project, focusing on leadership excellence and development.





1 accessed October 2014.

2 accessed October 2014.

3 ibid

4 ibid

5 accessed October 2014.

6 accessed October 2014.

7 ibid

8 accessed October 2014.

9 ibid

10 accessed October 2014.

11 accessed October 2014.

12 October 2014.

13 accessed October 2014.

14 accessed October 2014.

15 accessed October 2014.

16,_uncertainty,_complexity_and_ambiguity accessed October 2014.

17 accessed October 2014.

18 accessed October 2014.

An Inquiry into the State of HR in the Caribbean

An Inquiry into the State of HR in the Caribbean - Survey results from Queen's University IRC in collaboration with the Cave Hill School of BusinessQueen’s IRC has begun to develop a strong working relationship with the HR community in the Caribbean. Partnerships with the Cave Hill School of Business in Barbados and the Arthur Lok Jack School of Business in Trinidad and Tobago have allowed the IRC to bring its unique brand of programming to practitioners from almost a dozen Caribbean nations. Building partnerships such as these are critical to understanding the innovations and challenges in the global HR community. They have also allowed Queen’s IRC to extend our research beyond Canadian borders.

This report summarizes and analyzes the results of a survey of HR practitioners from the Caribbean conducted in 2012. The survey is a key component of the IRC’s commitment to engaging with international practitioner communities. More specifically, the results of the survey provide insight into several key aspects of Caribbean HR practitioners’ working lives. These include the demographic characteristics of practitioners, their roles and responsibilities, the nature of the organizations for which they work, their education and career development, the knowledge and skills required to thrive in the Caribbean, and of course, their perspectives on important issues, innovations and challenges in the HR profession today. The information in this report provides an important foundation to track ongoing trends and innovations in the Caribbean HR community and serves as a useful comparator when combined with recent (and forthcoming) surveys of Canadian HR practitioners.

Learning the Art of Painting the HR Landscape

Learning the Art of Painting the HR Landscape - Teaching HR Professionals to Communicate UpIt’s Saturday morning in cottage country. You’re hugging a cup of coffee on the porch. The mist is just clearing from the lake. The view from the deck is stunning. The geese are feeding at the shoreline. A hawk circles above the pines in the distance. Waves lap the deck, reminding you that you promised your cousin a kayaking lesson later this morning. He’s coming with your Aunt Sally on the train as part of the adventure. Aunt Sally recently discovered plein art painting. “Bring the SUV to the station,” she said. “I have the easel.”

Your mind is on the meeting you were invited to in ten days with the Director of Really Big Stuff. Your assignment: present your thoughts on the two-year view of the strategic people project that became your task when you accepted your new role as business unit support human resources leader for your division. It’s big and you’re just getting your head around it.

“Keep it simple,” her executive assistant said. “She doesn’t want to know about the trees, just the forest. I’ve seen her chew others up when they start talking about the trees. She doesn’t have time for the trees. She takes care of the forest and lets those taking care of the trees do their job. Sorry about the metaphor, but I wanted to give you a head’s up.”

“Wow,” you think. “The forest. Not the trees. Every presentation I made in my last role was all about the trees. My manager wanted the details. He wanted to know that I had a firm grasp of everything and had tied it all up in a nice, neat package. My team members wanted the same thing – to know that I had their back and they could see it in the spreadsheets I’d prepared.”

“How the heck do I approach this?” you think. “I’ve got twenty minutes to cover my thoughts on a two-year seriously strategic project?” Then you remember the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR course your new manager had asked you to attend when you accepted the role in the business unit. At the time it was still pretty new, and frankly, slightly overwhelming to make the transition from subject matter expert to business unit support leader. You remember something from that session about turning the curve on the way to the next level and how things at the next level require a different kind of thinking.

Global HR Trends: Is HR Ready to Respond?

 Is HR Ready to Respond?The focus of the human resources department has evolved over the last century, from its roots in administration, to a focus on building functional practices, to an emphasis on being a strategic business partner and “sitting at the table”. The HR leader needs to continue to advance to not only be aligned with the business but become a strategic partner that looks outside of the business to help it grow, compete and win in the market. HR departments must become attune to changes in the business and talent landscapes and help organizations navigate the changes in pursuit of their goals. While some HR departments have re-focused or re-structured to align more closely with the business and drive business results, research indicates that many HR departments have a long way to go. In Deloitte’s recent global human resources trends research study, the reskilling of HR was identified as the third most urgent issue for 2014 (Global Human Capital Trends 2014, p. 8).

This article is written for HR leaders and explores the global human resources trends, the human resources function’s readiness to respond, and the associated implications for the HR leader. It draws upon insights from Deloitte’s 2014 Global Human Capital Trends report and the Corporate Education Board’s Global Workforce Insights Q3 2014 report and relates the trends identified to the evolution of the human resources field.

What does ‘professionalism’ mean for HR professionals?

What does 'professionalism' mean for HR professionals?The desire for HR professionals to be accorded the respect and status of being true professionals is a theme that goes back many decades; and there is no evidence to suggest that this desire has waned over the years. In 2013, the Human Resources Professionals Association asked the following question on its annual member survey: “Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?”—89.4% of respondents agreed with the statement. This represents as much agreement as one is ever likely to find on any question. (Human Resources Professionals Association, 2013).

But there is an interesting contradiction here. The contradiction lies in that for something that is seemingly so important to HR professionals; the topic of “professionalism” rarely appears in HR publications or HR conferences. When the topic of professionalism comes up in HR circles, there are two responses which are often heard. The first is a response that goes something like “I always behave in a professional manner, and my clients and colleagues think of me as such.” The other response goes something like “I am always professional in what I do, but there are others in our profession that give the rest of us a bad reputation.” And yet, in a 2011 survey conducted by the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Center on the State of HR in Canada (Juniper & Hill, 2011), the authors noted that those HR professionals who reported that they are “pessimistic” or “not sure” about the future of HR were, in general, concerned about the lack of professionalism in the profession and the credentials that are required in order to obtain the CHRP designation.

By way of contrast, some of the established professions do not seem to take “professionalism” for granted and certainly do not think that the topic is an “undiscussable.” A bit more than a decade ago, in response to concerns that had been expressed about a decline in professionalism among lawyers, the Chief Justice of Ontario struck an Advisory Committee on Professionalism. The document Elements of Professionalism was authored by the Committee’s Working Group on the Definition of Professionalism. (2001)

The Professionalization of Human Resources

The Professionalization of Human ResourcesOn its annual member survey, the Human Resources Professionals Association asks the following question: “Do you agree that the professionalization of HR is, or should be, an important issue for the profession?”  In 2013, 89.4% of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement—this represents as much agreement as one is likely to find on any question.  Clearly, the professionalization of HR is an issue that is important to HR professionals—but what does it mean to professionalize HR?  Where do we currently stand?  And what are the next steps or challenges ahead?

Millerson (1964) defined professionalization as the process by which an occupation undergoes transformation to become a profession.  More recently, Hodson and Sullivan (2012) stated that professionalization can be understood as the effort by an occupational group to raise its collective standing by taking on the characteristics of a profession.  Borrowing from these definitions, we can define the professionalization of Human Resources as the process by which Human Resource professionals collectively strive to achieve the recognition and status that is accorded to the established professions by emulating or adopting the defining characteristics of the established professions.

The process of professionalization is complex—it also doesn’t help that there is a lack of consensus as to the meaning of the term ‘professionalization’, or the term ‘professionalism’ for that matter (Evans, 2008; Hargreaves and Goodson, 1996).  Most of the literature on professionalization stems from the field of sociology.  When sociologists think of ‘professionalism’ they usually focus on the institutional aspects such as the existence of a regulatory body, legal recognition as a profession, formal training programs, and the existence of codes of ethics.  This is different than what most non-sociologists have in mind when they think of ‘professionalism’ (see for instance, the document entitled ‘Elements of professionalism’ authored by the Chief Justice of Ontario Advisory Committee on Professionalism, 2001).  Here the focus is often on individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of the members of a professional group.  But even the sociological literature has begun to give more attention to those individual aspects of professionalism (Evans, 2008).  Indeed, the term ‘professionality,’ introduced by Hoyle (1974), has begun to be used to refer to the individual aspects such as the behaviours, attitudes, and values characteristic of members of a professional group.

Although the distinction between ‘professionalism’ and ‘professionality’ has certainly not made its way into common usage, the distinction between the institutional aspects and the individual aspects of professionalism and professionalization is useful and particularly germane to the profession of HR at this point in time.

The Relevant HR Professional: Five Strategies to Better Engage with Senior Business Leaders

 Five Strategies to Better Engage with Senior Business LeadersI’m always stunned when I hear a senior business leader say that their head of HR isn’t one of their key advisors; that the head of HR is often not at the senior executive table when major strategic or market initiatives are being discussed.

And yet, in most organizations, human resources are both the largest expense line in the profit and loss statement and the most mission-critical resource: it is only with good people that ANYTHING of business value gets done. For this reason alone, there should be a senior HR professional at the table for every strategic discussion.

So how can it be that in so many companies, the senior HR professionals get relegated to the kids’ table when the main meal is being prepared and served? Why are HR issues too frequently an afterthought? The reason for this comes from both sides; business line executives often feel HR professionals spend too much time on process and analysis and not enough on understanding and creating strategic impact; and HR professionals historically have not been trained or encouraged to find the necessary business skills to identify that impact and talk about it in language that excites and engages business leaders.

We have to earn our way to the table. Yes, it is critical for our own careers, but more importantly it is imperative for the business.  Outlined here are five strategies that any HR professional can employ to make themselves so relevant to the business and so engaged in its success that senior executives will demand that they are invited to join the senior executive team.

1. Understand your customer’s customer

To connect our value to what is most important to our customers – the senior executive team in our organization – we need to deeply understand our customer’s customer. What is happening in their market? What pressures are they under to differentiate themselves from the competition in their customer’s eyes?  What kind of skills will they need to achieve that differentiation? Dave Ulrich, in his excellent book HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources, talks about the need for HR professionals to reverse the way they view the world, to go outside and understand the motivations of customers, regulators, industry groups and competitors. (As a note, Ulrich’s book HR From the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources forms the heart of the Queen’s IRC Advanced HR program.)

By going outside the business and looking back in from the customer’s point-of-view, we can directly connect to the challenges our business line executives are facing in forming and executing a winning strategy. With this knowledge we can then shape and focus the value we deliver to help our customers differentiate their offerings and capture and retain their customers. By doing this we earn the right to engage in the strategic discussions that take place at the senior table.

2. Learn how to “sell” your value

The challenge for any executive in today’s business environment – this applies to CIO’s, marketing directors, compliance and risk officers, product heads and CFO’s in addition to HR professionals – is that there are more good projects to consider for investment than there are budget dollars to fund them. To be relevant, we need to be able to show how any initiative we propose will directly improve the business. We need to “sell” our ideas, and to sell them we must connect them directly to one or more of three key business drivers.

  1. How can this investment help to grow revenue?
  2. How can this investment reduce or help to better manage our costs?
  3. How can this investment help to better manage our risks?

Revenue. Cost. Risk. To be relevant, to be invited to the senior table, we need to ensure that any idea we propose connects directly to one or more of these areas. To do this, we need to understand how money is generated, how it is spent and what risks are involved in creating a profitable, competitive company.

3. Answer First

In discussing or presenting an initiative, start by showing the answer. Get to the point – immediately! And then backfill information as it is needed or requested. There is a story that when Jamie Dimon, current CEO of JPMorgan Chase, went to Bank One to be their new CEO, the weekly management meetings went on for hours and hours (8 hours was the number I heard when the story was relayed to me). Mr. Dimon is a driver, confident in his own knowledge and comfortable making decisions; these meetings drove him crazy.

So he implemented a rule that was called “Answer First”. Any executive making a presentation had to summarize his or her presentation on one cover page, including the relevant numbers. If the one page story was enough, the executive team made their decision and moved on. If they needed more information, the presenting executive was asked to present more. The meetings went from 8 hours to 2 hours. The point is that senior executives can process information very quickly – they “get” it – without needing extensive details. Remember, they aren’t buying a 40 page PowerPoint deck or 100 pages of detailed research – they are buying a compelling business argument backed by realistic financials. Make the concise argument. Back up your argument with relevant research and realistic financial numbers. Do the research and analysis and have your backup material ready, but don’t turn the telling of the story into a painful, mind numbing experience.

4. How do we get from here to money?

In most HR change initiatives, we are asking senior executives to invest in a change that will bring strategic benefit to their business. To earn this investment, we must be able to show the key decision makers how the organization or department will get from here to the point in time when their investment reaps the predicted returns. How do we get from here to money? This is an act of imagination – and it is an act we can’t assume our executives will make or will make well enough to see the full benefits and green light our project. We have to show them – succinctly – how the change will take place, when the investment will be required, when they can expect a return on that investment and how the risks of implementation will be managed.

5. Change the Conversation

To look at HR value through a business lens requires a mindset shift. To achieve this shift we need to change the way we think and talk about our work – we need to change the conversation. And the first conversation we need to change is the one in our heads. We need to think about what we do in terms of ultimate value to the business and – wherever realistically possible – translate that value into hard dollar financial terms.  This conversation must be the start of our approach to any problem or project: What is the business problem? What financial measure or risk mitigation practice am I working to improve? How can I plan and implement this change that gets us from here to money with the greatest speed and the least risk?

Secondly, we need to change the conversation with our teams. When we are discussing, researching, defining and preparing our arguments we need to challenge each other to define the business impact and to express it – Answer First! –  in succinct business terms and financial numbers.

And finally, we need to change the conversation with our senior executives. Even if we don’t have strong numbers, we need to be willing to talk about the numbers, about business impact, about their stakeholders, about how their strategy can be strengthened and the implementation times shortened. We need to change the conversation – in our head, with our team, and with our customers.

Companies and organizations of all sizes and shapes need senior HR professionals at the senior executive table. With the coming shifts in demographics and the endlessly accelerating need for better technical and business acumen and skills, there is a chair waiting at that table to be filled. Take the challenge – make yourself relevant and engaging; execute these strategies to show the full impact that you and HR can have on your business.

About the Author

Jim Harrison, Queen's IRC FacilitatorJim Harrison is an international consultant focused on strategy, sales and talent management for mid-sized to large organizations.  He started his career in financial services, working as a money trader for RBC/Dominion Securities.  He has over 27 years’ experience in consulting, training, and executive coaching. Jim is a facilitator on the Queen’s IRC Linking HR Strategy to Business Strategy program.  He also works with clients in North & South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, and regularly facilitates strategy and training sessions for such well-known companies as IBM, Accenture, PwC, KPMG, Fuji, AGFA, the Toronto Dominion Bank, Deutsche Bank, and HSBC. He received his B.Sc. degree in Finance from Florida State University and a Master’s Degree in English from the University of California, Irvine.



Ulrich, D., Younger, J., Brockbank, W. & Ulrich, M. (2012). HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill

Rising to a ‘Seat at the Table’ for HR Practitioners: Continuous Learning Leadership

 Continuous Learning LeadershipToday many vice presidents and other senior executives in human resources (HR) have earned a seat at the executive table by showing their organization’s senior teams that HR operations contribute at least as much as Sales, Marketing, Operations, Finance, IT or any other department. The key to this is continuous learning. Jack Welch, former 20-year CEO of world class GE, now an itinerant management guru, is often quoted: “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Executives who aspire to lead organizations have to spearhead that learning first by learning steadily themselves and that is nowhere truer than for HR.

Welch also says point blank in his book Winning (Welch, 2005) and frequently on the speaker circuit, that HR is the second most important job (after CEO of course), and the only other role impacting every part of an organization. It combines the most complex set of tasks of any position. You need to know HR inside and out, but like a CEO, you also need to know a good deal about every other function.

Since it is impossible to know everything, the key becomes developing the ability to learn rapidly. The only way to learn this is by practicing for it constantly. In so doing, you accumulate a wide knowledge as well as a respect for the complexity of other positions, and an ability to talk to people in their language.

Each of us learns differently, but what distinguishes top colleagues at the senior HR level is they never stop searching for answers and asking questions. This isn’t something you tack on when you reach the next level, but a set of habits you need to practice throughout your career. It begins with powerful curiosity about how things work, not just in HR, but in all sorts of subjects, the wider the better.

Everyone asks if HR executives need prior experience to pave the path to the C-suite in HR. Clearly, not every successful HR executive has worked in other situations, but an ability to understand other roles, to put yourself in another person’s shoes and step into a discussion of their issues (without looking uninformed) is critical. Even a short direct exposure to business issues helps many managers recognize the value of understanding them, but it is possible to do this without direct experience if you pay attention and work at it.

My advice to ‘learn to learn’ isn’t just idle guidance for others, but something I lived (and still do). I was able to serve in senior HR roles over 23 years, 14 as the senior vice president of HR for one of the country’s largest companies. In those roles, I found that successful people do not take their knowledge for granted.

In my experience, there are four main ingredients to successful HR leadership that are interdependent. All involve continuously increasing knowledge of yourself and your surroundings.

Seamless HR Services

First you have to ensure HR delivers effective support services. This is a price-of-entry requirement. It means knowing what the best services look like and whether yours are performing at top levels. Today this may mean outsourcing some aspects to ensure up to the minute systems and procedures, but whether outsourced or not, you can’t lose touch with how these are managed. Information privacy and security, human rights, ethics, diversity and more have to be monitored and assured in addition to effectiveness of the actual service provided. Experts can help, but HR needs a continuing, updated grasp of requirements so nothing is overlooked. It’s a big, continual learning requirement.

A key goal today is developing a consistent employment brand around a core HR strategy, whether that is talent management, successor development or whatever. This requires looking at the culture from the employees’ view and assembling all the basic HR pieces so the whole is consistent and positive, and there are no glaring inconsistencies that make rules, pay, perks or promotions seem unfair or management seem blind to such key issues. Staff need to believe they will be supported with challenging tasks so they can grow. Inevitably one of your challenges is executives who think motivation means to pay more, offer more incentives, bigger titles or other perks; they don’t want to ‘waste time’ (or maybe they don’t know how to) coach and develop talent.

Some senior executives will never fully get it. They’re caught up in day-to-day hustle. As an HR professional, being able to explain and illustrate what works best and why is a key skill that requires you to present useful facts relevant to these other divisions in language they relate to. All that requires strategy, confidence, and understanding a good deal about other functions.

This brings us to the second interdependent requirement – strategy.

Understandable HR Strategy

Strategies are how you plan to get to the better future you set out in your larger vision. Larger has to mean larger than just HR or just profit-making. The overall organization needs a vision and these are often pretty anemic – increase sales or market share by 5%. There isn’t much there to appeal to the average employee or other stakeholder groups except perhaps shareholders, though today even they are learning it takes more than just sales or profits to support increasing value.

We all debate mission versus vision and the usefulness of big statements for either. The difference is simple: vision is where you’d like to end up, mission is what you plan on doing to get there. Google wants to ‘organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.’ ( That’s a massive, positive mission for a vision of a goal that will never be fully realized. Visions are moving targets. And you need a vision/mission for your own life and work, and a plan to learn how to get there.

Google has been criticized for not expressing its mission in dollar terms – as in ‘earn billions for shareholders by making people pay for it.’ Somehow I doubt the dollar mission/vision would excite nearly as much effort or commitment from employees, the lifeblood of how you achieve results. Dollars flow in to organizations that have inspiring missions or visions that everyone wants to see succeed. They are more a by-product, a very important, necessary one for survival, but by-product nonetheless. The same is true of your own vision – getting a 10% raise is a by-product of some larger aim you pursue. What will that be? For me, business was a way to change the world. Trading partners are less likely to go to war, starve each other or worse. I might not have made huge progress, but I aimed for it.

Everyone says HR strategy should build around and align with the business strategy. That’s all well and good, but it has to go further than just supporting and being consistent with the need to make money. HR strategy helps lead and focus the business toward higher objectives than annual targets – the development and utilization of the full potential of every employee as well as a vision or mission they can be inspired about.

We want an engaged workforce because those will be our people who innovate. It’s their innovations that mean we can double, triple, quadruple the business, take it in new directions, into new products and services, new global markets, new alliances and joint ventures. As an HR professional, you learn to think ahead. Where’s your industry going? What’s becoming obsolete? This helps with workforce planning – what skills will the business need – but it also critically positions you as an HR business partner rather than simply a ‘support.’ You don’t take a year off to learn all this, you work at it diligently along with regular duties – learning a little at a time from every executive and expert you meet – if you pay attention.

Continuing Personal Growth

Others in the organization generally get very caught up in the financial by-product results, so HR has to know the language of dollars, capital investment, payback, ROI, ROIC and so forth and be able to show numerically some sort of connection with HR strategy.

Short courses and quick study materials are available for those who didn’t take business programs. You can’t talk with a CEO, CFO or an executive who aspires to these roles and has profit and loss targets to worry about if you don’t know what the words mean. Once you learn the language of business, then it’s straight forward to develop proof of how HR makes achieving them easier. You can’t find numbers in every case, but you can in enough areas to make very valid arguments. Today there’s mountains of research to present or adapt for such proofs.

Hesitancy in using numbers, doing statistics and calculating returns is widespread among HR executives with non-business backgrounds, but these can’t be excuses for not learning. Lots of people feared math in childhood, but adults have the ability to learn core skills when they need to, so old fears can, and should, be put aside. Strategy is fine, but without concrete, often numerical, evidence of progress, it won’t be effective.

In university, I took a couple of years of engineering, then finished with a degree in psychology and a Masters in counseling. When I decided to pursue HR, I knew I needed to know more, so I signed on for a night course in accounting and one in economics and I read a couple of books on both business and HR. I found that once you have the ground work you can look up the details. The math I needed was 99% arithmetic that all of us mastered in grade school. It’s rarely, as they say, rocket science. It’s knowing what to add, subtract, multiply or divide that is important.


If I have a regret about my years in the senior HR role, it would be that I spent most of it with a senior group that wasn’t really a team. Everyone operated fairly individually in silos despite weekly meetings. They knew what was going on, but didn’t coordinate in a true sense. The reason was the official leaders didn’t have the confidence to allow differing opinions to be worked through. Without that, true teamwork simply can’t be developed. Instead you have the boss’ opinion, modified in various individual ways to suit individual function strategies that don’t fully align.

Relying continually on pure command and control leadership – just giving orders – is a sign of insecurity and fear. It takes courage to run a collaborative operation. You can learn and become a model. If you can’t find an organization or develop a senior team to adopt this approach, the best advice is to seek the right ingredients elsewhere. I should have done this years before I finally moved on.

One of the greatest tests of anyone’s confidence is being able to hold back when your teams want to try things their way (since you may end up having to take the blame if they go wrong). You must ensure people can challenge your thinking as a leader in private or in meetings without fear of reprisals. Even if you react just with visible excess caution when suggestions are made, you won’t get feedback and ideas. Without input you are a lone soldier battling in the dark. No matter how good you are, you will never outdo competitors for promotions and you will lag in results behind those who utilize the full resources of everyone’s contributions.

It takes a lot of confidence to drive strategies for collaborative leadership and coaching-style development of successors throughout an organization against what is often steady, ingrained resistance. If you keep working at it, momentum can develop, making it increasingly easy as more and more executives understand the value.

I was lucky to have had some very intense leadership roles in jobs I volunteered for earlier in my career. I took those positions often without knowing I’d have to develop extra confidence to survive them. Volunteering for stretch roles that sound interesting is something I always recommend to anyone wanting to learn more and move ahead. As a super-shy child, adolescent, and young adult, I’d have been voted least likely to succeed in leadership. I ploddingly learned confidence in my skills one lesson at a time, as most leaders do, in the midst of struggling to make things work in tough jobs. Those who have read Geoff Colvin’s book Talent is Overrated or Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers will know that learning takes years to accumulate expertise, but there’s no substitute. Once you have the ground work though, you can speed up the promotion ladder very quickly.

Practice, trial and error and tolerance for your own mistakes are critical to learning. I’m a great example that this can all be learned if you persist in wanting results and taking some risks to get them. It would be hard to start with less self-confidence than I had. It develops naturally as you press forward, IF you press forward. Having a strategy for yourself and your work is essential, for then you can commit to the strategy and keep trying until you learn what it takes.

Even when there’s no additional pay immediately, it’s worth it to learn from challenging add-on roles to build a base for bigger jobs and the biggest incomes. In 35 years, I only asked for a raise once – and at that, it was a given I’d get one – it was just a matter of how much. Every other significant increase, big or small, came with taking on more responsibility in one way or another, most often without being asked. In 12 years that multiplied my pay by more than ten times from where I started in business. Fortunately I built the confidence to believe I could transition to a very different, more remunerative industry. Working at building confidence by volunteering for more difficult roles certainly paid off for me personally, as well as the organizations I did the work for.


All my HR work and attempts at influencing over the years were certainly made easier because of steady accumulation of interesting new ideas at every opportunity. I’m indebted to many fine staff who coached me in areas I didn’t have expertise in, which were many. It helped that I was an eager student for them, willing to listen, learn, ask for advice and share decisions.

It is easier and more necessary than ever to develop a tiered learning strategy today using many resources. With mountains of free material on the internet, and more companies encouraging senior managers to coach, lots can be obtained quickly and easily at no cost, no matter what learning approaches you prefer. Learn all you can on your own and free up precious development dollars to put toward high quality programs and sessions aimed not so much at certificates that look good on a resume, but for actual content to apply directly to your work whenever possible.

Simply learning all the time without applying much of it is of little value. At the same time we should never rule out learning things that aren’t immediately applicable if we see something intriguing that seems to have future value.

The more we develop a real enjoyment of discovering and applying new information, the more we will be prepared to keep at it not just once or twice a year, but daily, weekly, and whenever opportunities to ask good questions or check out something novel appears. A steady trickle beats an occasional flood every time. Learn to provide effective services, to strategize in all areas (personal and work) and the confidence to lead by example and by coaching even your senior team toward team-based approaches.

Don’t wait for anyone to invite you to focus on these areas for learning or leading. It’s never too soon to start investigating, thinking seriously through what you would or should do in the next role up… or two. That’s the route many of today’s top executives used to get ready for opportunities that hadn’t yet appeared.

Some years ago I attended a program where we were each encouraged to come up with a slogan to live by. After some pondering, the obvious line for me came to mind: Learn… and live!

My life and work have certainly been better for it.


About the Author

Dave Crisp, Crisp Leadership StrategiesDave Crisp writes and speaks about HR strategy and high performance leadership based on 5 core principles he developed to succeed in seven diverse industries. Prior to 10 years of consulting as Crisp Leadership Strategies, he helped 3 successive CEOs at Hudson’s Bay lead 70,000 people to become a “best company to work for” despite 110 re-organizations, mergers and acquisitions – nearly one a month. Among other successes, he once negotiated $60-million on a $10-million contract, led HR for two major Toronto hospitals and started a $10-million Internet division in 6 countries in a few months while continuing to lead HR at HBC. He currently serves on the leadership team of an HR think tank and writes regular thought pieces for them, in addition to pieces for the Canadian HR Reporter as well as his own blog called Balance and Results.



Colvin, Geoff (2010) Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. New York, NY: Portfolio Trade.

Gladwell, Malcolm (2008) Outliers: The Story of Success. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company

Google (n.d.) Google’s Mission Retrieved from

Welch, Jack (2005) Winning. Boston, Mass: Harper Business.

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 IRCDr. 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.



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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.

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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.

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