5 tips for nurturing the next generation

Predictions of a federal brain drain caused by a flood of retirees make succession planning more important than ever. It's so important, experts say, that agencies should treat replacing senior government leaders like a mission-critical program.

The rising tide of potential retirements, especially among career information technology employees, is already prodding government officials to act. More than 50 percent of all federal employees are within five years of possible retirement. And almost one-third of federal information technology employees who are members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) expect to retire in the next three years.

Not all employees retire as soon as they become eligible, but studies show accelerating federal retirement rates. Agencies have begun to incorporate succession planning into their strategic plans, but many are not far enough along in executing them.

Judith Douglas, vice president of leadership and performance at the Council for Excellence in Government, a nonprofit group, offered several tips for getting midcareer employees in shape to replace senior executives. In sum, they could serve as a performance management plan for senior agency officials. But as with most management advice, not everyone agrees on the best ways to execute such plans.

oneBe a role model

Senior executives should be visible role models for younger employees, Douglas said. Many federal executives are too busy to act on this tip. But one new interagency program has been designed to prepare future senior executives by exposing a small group of midcareer professionals to top federal leaders.

The SES Federal Candidate Development Program, run by the Office of Personnel Management, has slots for 12 midlevel employees from government and the private sector. The 12 will be paired with federal agency leaders who will serve as mentors. Employees who complete the program will be eligible for an SES position, without further competition.

Others suggest that even the youngest federal employees should have access to top executives. "We need to worry about the development of new employees as well," said Steve Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a Federal Computer Week columnist. "We need more structured opportunities for junior employees to observe and debrief senior employees about how they do their jobs."

Some workforce experts say making public appearances is not enough. Senior officials must do more to nurture future federal leaders, said Marcia Marsh, vice president of government transformation at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization.

"We've found that success in succession planning happens when senior leadership owns the process, makes it a strategic imperative and engages in it every year, at a minimum," Marsh said.

oneFind people who fit

Agency officials should be candid with prospective candidates about the agency's cultural norms, Douglas said. They should make them aware of expected behaviors in the office, which include using e-mail properly and dressing appropriately.

Mark Doboga, deputy associate director of the Center for Talent and Capacity Policy at OPM, said an agency should hire and promote people who are comfortable with the agency's mission.

But Kelman said he advises against too much hiring and promoting based on prevailing cultural norms. "If an agency has problems with [its] culture — and many do — you don't want to produce that in the next generation," he said.

Senior officials should avoid groupthink. It is important, Kelman said, to hire or promote a few people to serve as internal gadflies.

oneDon't just leave these issues to HR

Managers should not rely on their agency's human resources department for developing future leaders, Marsh said. Program managers should be accountable for their employees' development, she said.

Marsh cited the partnership's case study of an innovative succession management approach at the National Reconnaissance Office, an agency that manages space reconnaissance systems (see box, below). NRO does not have its own workforce. All employees are on loan from other defense and intelligence agencies and may be recalled to their home agencies on short notice.

At NRO, she said, senior managers review potential candidates for promotion every quarter. They also control the succession process, which they manage as a strategic and national security activity.

oneAppreciate leadership skills

In hiring and promoting, managers should immediately tap leadership talent when they discover it, Marsh said, adding that signs of leadership ability can appear fairly early. Rather than promoting employees based on their technical skills, she said, managers should focus on leadership behavior.

Kelman said he agreed that technical skills are not as important as leadership skills for selecting and promoting employees for senior leadership positions. He said employees with leadership gifts should be singled out early for management positions. "This is something that has gotten much too little attention in the federal government," he added.

Doboga said technical skills are often overrated in succession planning. "The higher up you go, the greater is the importance of leadership skills," he added.

However, officials should not totally discount technical aptitude, Marsh said. Some mission-critical positions require a melding of technical competency and leadership ability. "It may be your top two leadership rungs or your IT specialist who owns the key to the kingdom," she said.

oneFoster leadership

Establish mentor programs for aspiring managers. Douglas said successful private-sector companies often use retired employees as mentors. People are willing to share their knowledge if they feel they are part of a cause, she said, and retired federal employees often want to participate in succession plans.

Agencies should think beyond simply offering training courses to future leaders, Douglas said. They should also create apprenticeships or internships.

Senior officials should take newly promoted senior managers under their wings, said Kevin Mahoney, deputy associate director of OPM's Center for General Government. "We encourage agencies to have a mentor program where newly minted leaders have someone they can work with," he said.

Most workforce experts agree that the goal of succession planning is an ambitious one and that the deep smarts of experienced senior officials are essential assets an agency cannot easily replace by turning to contractors or younger employees.

Jacqueline Simon, public policy director at the American Federation of Government Employees, said government officials are mistaken when they ridicule the existing personnel system for its emphasis on rewarding experience, she said.

"It's important that federal agencies be permitted to replace [retiring] federal employees with federal employees and not contractors," Simon said. "They shouldn't look exclusively outside the government."

Tip: Let employees nominate themselves for promotions

High-tech succession planning is under way at the National Reconnaissance Office, a security agency that manages the nation's space reconnaissance systems.

To more clearly understand its personnel needs, the agency relies on a Web-based succession planning tool.

Top leaders and other mission-critical employees define the skills, education and professional experience required to be successful in their jobs.

NRO employees can nominate themselves for any job in the agency, even if they wouldn't be eligible or qualified for the position for several more years. They submit their résumés online.

Managers can recommend employees from the entire federal intelligence community for any position.

Each quarter, NRO senior officials review current succession strategies, immediate replacement needs and the pool of potential candidates.

Personnel experts view the process as fair and transparent. Once a position becomes vacant, the agency holds a standard federal job competition.

— Aliya Sternstein


  • Workforce
    Shutterstock image 1658927440 By Deliris masks in office coronavirus covid19

    White House orders federal contractors vaccinated by Dec. 8

    New COVID-19 guidance directs federal contractors and subcontractors to make sure their employees are vaccinated — the latest in a series of new vaccine requirements the White House has been rolling out in recent weeks.

  • FCW Perspectives
    remote workers (elenabsl/Shutterstock.com)

    Post-pandemic IT leadership

    The rush to maximum telework did more than showcase the importance of IT -- it also forced them to rethink their own operations.

Stay Connected