Managing Engineers, Recruiting

Succession Planning for Engineering Talent

October 23, 2014

Succession planning is hard. But before we talk about the challenges, let’s define what we mean by succession and succession planning – the plans put in place for a person or persons who have been identified to take up the role, responsibilities or duties of another person when they are no longer present or able to do so.

The word succession is so easy to introduce. But let me challenge you on the word – it is a derivative of the word success – yet do we always associate success in the choice of successor?

How many people are in positions of influence, power, and/or decision making that are not a good fit? 

Is Failing to Plan Planning to Fail?

I prefer the phrase “succession management,” defined in a 2009 article in IEEE Today’s Engineer as “making provisions for the replacement of key people” and further talks through the need for good quality planning as part of that provision making. I like this term because it elevates the much-needed discussion to define good quality talent that is needed for succession – providing that replacement and how it is not just an identification process, but a managed approach for good quality succession planning.

The same publication states “Companies that ignore the need for succession management planning risk potentially devastating losses to growth and financial profits.” Without preparation for building current and future talent, the future success of any business is in doubt.

However for many smaller and/or specialist companies, the need to succession plan is rarely considered and even when it is, never acted upon.

The approach is more about leaving it to the outcome of fate – “we will deal with the issue as it arises” being the common refrain.

Succession Planning: Critical for Engineering Talent

It is the preponderance of this approach in specialist fields of work, which not only makes succession planning have a negative impact, but also confirms the challenges.

Human nature is naturally averse to taking on that which will be the most challenging, and the natural instinct is to try and ignore these areas until there is no option but to deal with them.

The challenges for engineering companies are not only the specialist knowledge needs, but they can also be the small business challenge! Many people in small- and medium-sized entities may be the only person to do that engineer role, because even where those on the outside look in and see 12 engineers, they may be electrical or mechanical, chemical, software… various positions each with their own often very distinct steer on requirements.

This means that there is a dependency on one or two people who provide a required service.

An Alberta government publication “Succession Planning – Retaining Skills and Knowledge in your Workforce encourages employers to bring the need for good succession planning to realize the critical knowledge required not just currently but for the future. This publication has some great case studies of smaller companies benefiting from the quality succession management plans and also gives advice on how to go about creating one.

What is worth noting is the need for knowledge retention.

This is a critical component for engineering and actually most of the IT, design, and other employment areas that may require years of specialist training to achieve accreditation, and preparing someone to develop into this role for the future is no easy task, given the amount of educational ad practical activity that may be a prerequisite.

Example: Architectural Engineer

A four- or five-year bachelor degree, many thousand hours of low-paid practical internship experience and potential graduate certificates, licensing requirements, and that’s just to begin proper paid work.

So consider the requirements to replace someone from such a role who is retiring or leaving – not so easy.

The recognition here is that succession, although often referred to as internal progression, may also involve bringing someone in from outside. Someone who can provide all that experience and educational requirements that are not currently present. However, recognizing this is not so easy and particularly difficult for entrepreneurs and business founders to deal with.

But there are some key components that can support this.

A Strategic Approach to Succession Planning

The Society for Human Resource Managers (SHRM) foundation has a great DVD resource available Seeing Forward: Succession Planning at 3M which talks through the challenges and approaches 3M took to embed succession planning as an alignment to their strategic approach. I thought this was a great case study to reflect upon because of the business profile and dependency on a high number of engineering positions that a company like this has. However, it became evident in reviewing this that the approaches they identified are much the same as that undertaken by many other organizations.

I particularly like the key requirements for good succession planning that they identify and would highlight:

  • Commitment from the top,
  • Comprehensive performance reporting, and
  • Linking to long term strategy.

They also use a wonderful phrase for internal talent development to support succession planning saying it is about the right people set in the right direction. Something which I think is an outcome of the previous three key points – you need to know where you are going, you need to be able to accurately and objectively assess peoples’ competence, and you need to make sure that you have senior or board-level support to do what is necessary.

This piece doesn’t give solutions, but it recognizes the challenges faced in succession planning for the engineering professions and similar roles. If I was to summarize I’d put this as two main challenges that may be faced in planning for future talent.

  1. The need for businesses to find time and realize the benefits of succession planning, and
  2. Recognition of significant specialist educational needs.

I also reiterate the need to balance internal and external talent being best for the succession plan, and sometimes that space will be best filled through a full recruitment. But if you have good processes in place to assess current capability, you can be assured that you are reaching externally only when that is the best position to take.

Photo Credit: Pete Ashton