The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

A 7-Step Model for Developing an Internal Talent Pipeline

The higher education workforce is aging. Data from CUPA-HR show that the median age of executive leaders (deans, provosts, presidents, vice presidents) is 60. The majority of faculty are between the ages of 55 and 75. The median age of chief HR officers is 55. About half of higher ed staff are at least 50 years old, and nearly 40 percent are 55 or older.

While succession planning is widely used in the corporate world to ensure a pipeline of internal talent is primed and ready to fill the gaps when they arise, higher education has been slow to adopt this philosophy. However, the University of Tennessee has recently begun to tackle the challenges related to a looming retirement boom on its seven campuses with a straightforward, simple, low-cost, replicable succession planning and leadership development model.

The University of Tennessee’s model looks like this:

Step 1: Confirm Commitment
Once a department or area of campus expresses interest in succession planning/leadership development for their area, they must complete a commitment confirmation. This consists of the organization leader completing a checklist and answering some questions to check their readiness level for the change upon which they’ll be embarking. They’re also tasked with identifying succession planning focus areas and the responsible leader(s) or manager(s). Says Ron Tredway, executive director of employee and organizational development for the UT System, “We want to make sure everyone is in the know on what this process will look like, what the expectations are and how they can be successful.”

Step 2: Identify Key Positions
In the second step, the area leader identifies the positions most in need of a succession plan — those that are traditionally hard to fill, have the greatest complexity and/or where the incumbent is likely to leave in the next one to three years. Tredway stresses the importance of being selective and strategic about which positions are chosen for succession planning, as some are more critical than others. The area leader then works with HR to prioritize the positions selected based on mission criticality and imminences of loss.

Step Three: Develop Position Competencies
Next, the area leader or hiring managers work with HR and the incumbent to develop and confirm the required and desired competencies and desired proficiency levels for the positions chosen. Says Tredway, “It’s critical for HR to work in collaboration with the hiring managers in developing these competencies, because not all managers understand what competencies are or how to identify them.”

Step Four: Identify Potential Successors
While there are several ways to go about identifying potential successors (self-identification, nomination by a supervisor, nomination by peers, etc.), Tredway says it’s important to establish criteria that will be used consistently to minimize potential bias. It’s also important to make sure the identified individuals are invested and committed — and understand that they aren’t guaranteed a job.

Step Five: Assess the Competencies of Potential Successors
In UT’s model, potential successors are assessed on their proficiencies around the competencies identified for the role. Assessments are administered in several ways — by supervisors, by executives the individual may have interacted with, by their peers, and through self-assessment techniques. If there are multiple candidates for the same position, supervisors or area leaders must prioritize the development of the candidates based on available resources.

Step Six: Create a Development Plan for the Potential Successor
The hiring manager or supervisor then works with the identified potential successors to create an individual development plan focusing on the competencies in which they are lacking for the position to which they’re aspiring. “We encourage them to keep it simple, with one to three development actions to start, and then add on as needed,” says Tredway.

Step Seven: Periodically Review the Actions
Finally, managers and supervisors should develop a plan for reviewing progress on potential successors’ individual development plans and the succession planning process outcomes. Tredway suggests that there be a clear alignment between the potential successor’s individual development plan and the individual’s annual performance review.

“It’s all about investing in and developing the talent you have in order to meet the workforce demands of the next few years,” says Tredway. “If you do it the right way and for the right reasons, it’s worth the time, energy and investment.”

To see how the UT Health Sciences Center has implemented this succession planning model, read the article “Who’s Next? A Model for Developing an Internal Talent Pipeline” in the current issue of CUPA-HR’s The Higher Education Workplace magazine.

Additional Resources:
Succession Planning Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center
Workforce Planning Toolkit in CUPA-HR’s Knowledge Center
Let’s Stop Calling It Succession Planning
Creating Your Individual Development Plan (e-learning course)
Developing Leadership Competencies in Higher Ed (10-minute learning video)
Developing the Skill Set and Mindset of Future University Leaders 


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.