Connect The Dots

Many organizations--including parks and recreation agencies--will soon face a major shift in staffing due to the “Baby Boomer effect” and the “Generation X and Generation Y effect.”

The baby boomers have retirement in their sights, and will be leaving organizations in record numbers.

While it has been common for boomers and older-generation employees to stay in agencies long-term, the Generation X and Generation Y effect will make this a thing of the past. These employees are looking to build skills and move on to better jobs rather than work their way up through the same system.

These changes will have a major impact on immediate and long-term operations of agencies. The plan for the future for many organizations, not just parks and recreation, is succession planning.

Succession planning is a systematic process to identify and prepare high-performing employees to assume key positions within the organization. It is designed to ensure continued effective performance by building competencies needed to be successful.

Currently, succession planning is under-utilized by parks and recreation agencies, because many people rightfully assume it is time-consuming. Other reasons for not doing a succession plan include:

1. It lacks immediate results.

2. It is viewed as important but not urgent.

3. Managers feel their positions are threatened if others have similar skill sets.

4. Often, there becomes a mentality that employees are short-term.

While some of these may be legitimate concerns (i.e., succession planning can take anywhere from 12 to 36 months to complete), its focus is on developing leaders who are capable of filling multiple assignments. Succession plans ultimately improve organizations and increase long-term stability.

There are four steps involved in creating a succession plan:

1. Understanding development needs

2. Assessing job demands and performance

3. Building the talent pool

4. Facilitating development opportunities.

Each step is tailored to the agency, and the length of time needed to complete each will vary. This article does not offer a full description of the succession-planning process; however, it will provide the framework needed to get the ball rolling. Also, keep in mind that succession planning is for all levels of the organization--not just the CEO.

Understanding Development Needs

This is the information-gathering and learning step where the organization begins to change the way it views itself and its operations. This step focuses on competencies--skills, knowledge and characteristics needed to be successful.

Competencies have been developed in public parks and recreation at all levels of the organization, from the board level (the CEO in nonprofit recreation agencies) to the interns and new employees. These competencies include such skills as multi-tasking, communication, creativity and innovation. (A complete list is available from the authors). An agency must dedicate itself to becoming competency-driven in its processes, such as human-resource management.

Job descriptions, application screening, interview questions and evaluation tools should center on the competencies necessary for the job. This first step in the process requires the agency to look at competencies, focus on how they are implemented into the agency, and gain an understanding of the development needs of employees.

Assessing Job Demands And Performance

This is arguably the most time-consuming step in the entire process. It requires:

1. Determining whether the focus will be on all levels (i.e., supervisory, coordinating) or specific positions

2. Assessing the depth or bench strength of each level/position

3. Conducting a job analysis to identify roles, responsibilities and expectations of each position

4. Identifying competencies for each level/position.

To better understand the urgency of succession planning, a bench-strength analysis will show who is in a current position, who is ready for that position now, and who might be ready 1, 2 or 5 years in the future. It is often surprising how many gaps there are within the organization.

Building The Talent Pool

During this step, energy is focused on all levels of the organization and on finding the “high potentials” (HiPos). HiPos are people who have not hit a career plateau, are capable of advancing two or more levels in the profession, and exceed minimum job expectations. To assess the HiPos, it is suggested that the agency use a 360-degree evaluation process, where each person is evaluated by respective supervisor, peers and subordinates.

Organizations may also use an assessment center to evaluate HiPos by putting them through higher-level scenarios to see how they perform. Once they have been assessed and their strengths as well as their areas for development have been identified, the organization builds its talent pool. This is done by creating an individual development plan (IDP) with each HiPo. These plans are designed to take the information gathered and develop a plan to help employees achieve their professional goals over the next several years.

The IDP details several elements:

1. The potential jobs the employee wants that are realistically achievable in the established timeframe (i.e., 2 to 3 years rather than 10 years)

2. A timeline to determine when the employee might move to the next level

3. The competency gap between where the employee currently is and the competencies needed at the next level

4. Measurable learning objectives

5. Strategies and resources needed to accomplish these objectives

6. Identified means of collecting evidence of accomplishment and a method for tracking.

Building the talent pool improves the quality of employees internally. However, there are both positive and negative aspects of developing and hiring within. Building from within can improve employee morale because employees see that they are being groomed for a higher level in the organization; the agency is hiring a “known quantity”; and institutional knowledge is retained.

On the other hand, there are downsides to developing and hiring within:

1. Sometimes it makes people feel there is a guarantee they will be hired for a higher-level position.

2. Internal competition among staff can escalate and must be monitored.

3. There is a heavy load on training and development.

4. Those not involved in the talent pool may need more nurturing.

Understanding these issues and controlling them can diminish their impact on the agency and staff.

Facilitating Development Opportunities

There are several different development opportunities an organization may provide, such as lunch-and-learn programs, in which the employees build knowledge and common understanding. There are also many leadership conferences and classes to which organizations can send employees.

Another choice is establishing a mentoring program. This can be a one-on-one program or a group program; it can also be peer-mentoring between employees of the same level or supervisory-mentoring between a supervisor and a respective subordinate.

Many different avenues may be taken, but it is important for the organization to initially understand individual learning styles--some employees respond better to a conference, while others learn more efficiently using a mentoring program. It is up to the organization to understand its employees’ learning styles and select the program that will be most effective.

After completing these steps, an organization should be better prepared for the future loss of upper- and middle-level employees, and be able to move on seamlessly with a small learning curve.

Work cited:

Rothwell, W. J. (2005). Effective Succession Planning. New York: Amacom.


Dane Boudreau is a graduate student at Illinois State University.

Amy R. Hurd, Ph.D., CPRP, is an associate professor in the School of Kinesiology & Recreation at Illinois State University. She can be reached at (309) 438-5557, or via e-mail at