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Succession Planning and Management in Public Health Practice

Wiesman, John MPH, CPH; Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH

Section Editor(s): Baker, Edward L. MD, MPH; Column Editor

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: January/February 2013 - Volume 19 - Issue 1 - p 100–101
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0b013e318272bb09
The Management Moment

This article discusses the practice of succession planning and management, emphasizing the need for a more systematic and orderly approach in public health practice. Also it explores pitfalls in managing succession planning and points toward future directions.

Clark County Public Health, Clark County, Washington (Mr Wiesman); National Association of County & City Health Officials, Washington, District of Columbia (Mr Wiesman); and Department of Health Policy and Management, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Dr Baker).

Correspondence: Edward L. Baker, MD, MPH, Department of Health Policy and Management, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, 1101 McGavran-Greenberg Hall, CB #7411, Chapel Hill, NC 27599 (

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Much has been written regarding the changes in the composition of the public health workforce.1 Put simply, boomers are “aging out” and others are burning out. As a result, public health agencies face unprecedented challenges in managing the transition to new leadership. In this article, we discuss the practice of succession planning and management, emphasizing the need for a more systematic and orderly approach in public health practice. Furthermore, we explore pitfalls in managing succession planning and point toward future directions.

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What Is Succession Planning and Management?

We prefer the term “succession planning and management” to simply “succession planning” to emphasize the need for an orderly, well-managed program addressing the need for identifying and developing high-performing leadership in key positions. A succession planning and management program has been defined as “a deliberate and systematic effort by an organization to ensure leadership continuity in key positions, retain and develop intellectual and knowledge capital for the future, and encourage individual advancement.”2 (p6)

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Key Benefits of a Succession Planning and Management Program

Research has shown that a well-structured approach to succession planning and management results in improved continuity of operations and enhances stability, particularly in a time of organizational change.3 Clearly, public health organizations are experiencing extraordinarily high levels of organizational change; as a result, an orderly approach to leadership transition is needed now more than ever before. Furthermore, orderly succession planning and management can result in a more systematic transfer of knowledge and wisdom between current and future leadership. Relationships developed over many years can be maintained and strengthened through orderly leadership transition. In addition, development of new leadership talent can be enhanced through the utilization of leadership training and development methods, including coaching, training, stretch assignments, and education. Clearly, orderly succession planning and management benefits the entire organization, sending a message of stability and emphasizing a strategic focus on the future.

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Critical Success Factors

Research studies and expert opinion point to 3 critical success factors in a successful succession planning and management program. First, a talent pool of high-performing, high-potential leaders must be systematically developed. Second, the chief executive officer must be committed and personally involved. Third, the succession planning and management process must be linked to the organization's strategic planning process and direction. There critical success factors underscore the point that a system must be created to manage the succession planning process, which ensures that progress will be achieved.

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Avoiding Pitfalls

Succession planning programs should avoid “executive cloning,” which are attempts to replicate the existing leader's characteristics and provide a comfortable fit for current operations. Rather, session planning should focus on future needs and appreciate that these needs may require a different leadership style. At times, there may be an overemphasis on talent finding with less emphasis on talent development. “Head hunting” is just the beginning of developing a leadership talent pool. Finally, succession planning often is not well linked to the organization's strategic direction. Coupling strategic planning and leadership succession planning is essential.

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Implications for Public Health Practice

In the rapidly changing world of public health practice, several implications for session planning and management are apparent. Since many local public health organizations are relatively small, a coordinated effort both across organizations and across the nation will be needed for talent pool identification and development. More business and management training opportunities are required to provide future leaders with the skill sets needed to manage public health organizations in a businesslike manner. Mentors will be needed to transfer knowledge and wisdom and facilitate development of future leaders. Opportunities for job rotation and cross-fertilization are needed to enhance the experiences of future leaders. Addressing these challenges will require concerted efforts at the local, state, and national levels to ensure that the future leadership needs of public health are adequately addressed.

Accreditation of public health agencies by the national Public Health Accreditation Board requires a systematic approach to workforce development (Essential Public Health Service 8).4 In our view, succession planning and management should become an integral part of the process of preparing for accreditation and specific guidelines should be developed to assess the status of public health agency practice in succession planning and management.

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Future Directions

Research on succession planning and management is now being conducted by one of us (J.W.) as part of the doctoral program in Health Leadership at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This research consists of surveys and key informant interviews with public health practitioners to identify the state of succession planning and management in local public health organizations and identify promising practices that can be shared. Preliminary findings of that research indicate that significant gaps exist in the area of succession planning and management. However, there are some useful models and lessons learned that hold promise for the future. A future Management Moment column will share the findings of this research.

In the meantime, we encourage further dialogue in the public health community regarding the need for a more systematic approach to the development of our future leaders. Succession planning and management should become a core leadership skill set as we work to strengthen the public health enterprise for generations to come.

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1. National Association of County & City Health Officials. 2010 National Profile of Local Health Departments. Washington, DC: National Association of County & City Health Officials; 2011.
2. Rothwell WJ. Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring Leadership Continuity and Building Talent From Within. 4th ed. New York, NY: American Management Association; 2010.
3. Carter NH. Guaranteeing management's future through succession planning. Inf Syst Manag. 1986;3(3):13–24.
4. Bender K, Halverson PK. Quality improvement and accreditation: what might it look like? J Public Health Pract Manag. 2010;16(1):79–82.
© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.