Succession Planning is Key to Sustaining Organizational Excellence in K12 Education

Pat Greco

In Brief

6-Minute Read

When critical members of the team leave, it can be unsettling. Every organization has members who carry specific skills and knowledge that impact the entire organization. They know the technology systems, hold responsibility for major projects and understand the workflow to keep everything moving. They are the keepers of the history, working knowledge and the processes often left undocumented. These employees are so good that the full team counts on them. Then, they decide to leave.

Key Takeaways

  • A coherent plan for development and succession of roles in K12 institutions can make the difference between short-term and long-term success.

  • A consistent succession planning process build capacity for growth and continuous improvement.

  • An effective succession plan includes a year-at-a-glance overview of the role and a strategically designed development plan to both advance the role and the entire organization.

A coherent outline of the day-to-day work and skills needed to fill the role is critical in this scenario. A succession plan like this provides a wholistic picture of the knowledge necessary to do the job. Having this document ready for every role can make the difference between stagnation and continued momentum in the wake of a transition.

The key components of a succession plan are:

  1. Position description and core job responsibilities
  2. Unique certifications required or desired
  3. Team members currently in the role and a risk assessment
  4. Eligible and aspiring internal and external candidates
  5. A Year-at-a-glance overview of the role
  6. Organizational and role-specific development plan

How Succession Planning Builds Capacity

Having skilled staff at every level builds team capacity so that all departments function more productively. No one is left to “carry the load” because it is easily distributed and better balanced across team members.

By capturing the evolution and improvements that make the nature of a role less reactive and the skills most critical to success, the succession plan creates capacity for any person serving in the role.

Education leaders who take succession planning and skill development seriously demonstrate that they value people’s input, expertise and time. Employees know that the complexity of their work is understood and that their leader cares enough to sustain competent team members in every division and level.

A solid succession plan also creates a pathway to growth. Top performers – the most engaged 20% – are capable of developing into the next generation of leaders. By having a playbook to their current role ready and consistently revisited, they can clearly understand where they need to develop to continue on a leadership trajectory. They can also more easily communicate and pass on the role responsibilities for the job that they are leaving.

Developing the Year-at-a-glance Overview

It can take eight weeks or longer to replace a person leaving a position. During this transition, remaining team members are left filling the gaps. Preparing in advance for employee transitions is a direct benefit to every member of the team and the organization. Developing a year at a glance for each unique job role is a strong first step.

Because the year at a glance is more detailed than a job description, it captures the key work month over month specific to each job function. Depending on the role, this may include information on safety protocols, payroll processes, funding deadlines, legal compliance, grant submissions, communication timelines, and more. When team members document their active year at a glance and update it annually, the full team has a tool to use to build a strong foundation to:

  • Plan for team member transition
  • Onboard new employees
  • Outline core competencies to sustain success
  • Outline unique skills needed for cross training
  • Communicate project management, workflow and deadlines
  • Create a learning plan for key roles across each department

Transitions are an investment in a new member of the team. It is important to pause long enough to think through changing team needs, assess the key skills needed to complement team and define organizational priorities to build new capacity. An effective year-at-a-glance answers the questions:

  • What skills and special certifications are needed for this role?
  • What specific talents add value to the team?
  • Are certain behaviors critical to being successful in this organization?

Proper employee transition planning gives the team the ability to manage the gaps and the time to reflect on these questions before they rush to hire.

The Organizational and Role-specific Development Plan

Strong team members bring specific knowledge, skills and experiences to the team. Great organizations continue to develop learning and leadership skills long after these great hires are made.

Intentional succession planning challenges leaders to review key roles annually and understand the month-over-month job responsibilities and skills the entire team needs to protect the organization from a sudden departure. Through this practice, leaders gain genuine insight to build an effective organizational development plan designed around both system-wide development needs and specific job skills and capabilities needed to sustain momentum.

This development plan should be informed by the succession plan for each job role and should then be included in the succession plan.

A Framework for Development Planning

Huron works alongside clients in K12 institutions using the Evidence-Based LeadershipSM Framework (EBL) to create organizational development plans that help leaders build a culture aligned with the Nine Principles for Organizational Excellence. The Nine Principles are the guiding tenets that help an organization define what excellence looks like. The Evidence-Based LeadershipSM Framework provides the structure for standardizing practices to get there and creates a framework for accountability.

Evidence-based Leadership Framework

In the first stages of EBL, leaders work with key stakeholders to define what success will look like and document the measures that matter in tracking progress toward goals. From here, leaders are responsible to develop their people and ensure staff members are prepared to make necessary changes, work together and achieve outcomes.

Below is an example of a development plan outline for all employees within a highly accomplished organization.

  • Core Improvement Principles
  • Nine Principles for Organizational Excellence
  • Service Excellence
  • Team Excellence
  • Always Actions
  • PDSA Cycles

All Employees

Improvement Coaches

  • Strategic Alignment
  • Evidence-Based LeadershipSM
  • Improvement Tools/Tactics
  • Balanced Scorecard
  • Feedback & Roll Out
  • Culture of Service
  • Performance Excellence

Board, Leaders, Leadership Academy

Executive Coaches

  • Project Management
  • Decision Analysis
  • Lean Six Sigma; DMAIC

Leaders/Leadership Academy

Advanced Training

  • Shared Learning & Network Improvement Communities
  • Research on Improvement, Change and Systems

Leadership Teams

Workshops and Conferences, Carnegie Foundation

Make Succession Planning Part of the Job

Succession planning starts with a deep understanding of the key work in the organization and the important contributions each employee makes toward goals and outcomes. The person who best understands the demands of the role and how the work contributes to overall team success is the person doing the work. They have the most insight into solutions and efficiencies discovered over time in the role. They are also the person leaving the job. A well-designed succession planning process enlists employees to capture the evolution of their work as processes are refined to pass efficiencies onto future employees who fill the role.

By making succession planning an improvement practice that every employee undertakes as part of their role, leaders can be sure that they are recruiting new employees for the position with the most recent improvements and skills needed for someone to be successful in the role.

Success isn’t accidental. Intentionally assessing the capabilities needed and hardwiring the learning opportunities builds competence, sustains personal commitment and positions the organization to produce strong results.


To protect districts and schools against the impact of critical team transitions, education leaders must:
  • Think differently.
    Understand that the people closest to the work are the most powerful people to define the skills and capabilities needed to be successful in the role.
  • Plan differently.
    Embed the succession planning practice into the responsibilities of the job for all roles.
  • Act differently.
    Review succession plans annually, and use a framework to align the development needs of each role to the skills needed to achieve goals.

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