HR Pipelines Not Under Construction

A new report on federal agencies finds that, while most HR leaders are focusing on succession planning within the greater organization, far fewer are building up their own HR talent pipelines. Lack of time, inadequate funding and employee mobility were some of the reasons cited for the dearth of HR pipelines.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011
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Succession planning is the backbone of any good talent-management program, so why aren't more HR leaders at federal agencies developing their own HR talent pipelines?

There's a confluence of barriers to building that pipeline as well as a common desire of federal HR leaders to seek positions in other, higher-profile federal agencies "where the action is," according to Preparing the People Pipeline: A Federal Succession Planning Primer.

The report, by the Partnership for Public Service and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, finds that succession planning for HR professionals in federal agencies was done about 57 percent of the time, compared to 86 percent for the department or agency overall.

This is a major issue for government agencies, the report notes, because of a looming exodus expected to soon hit the federal workforce, partly due to the expected retirement of baby boomers.

"Staff turnover is as inevitable as death and taxes," the report states, "and for government it looms large on the horizon. By the end of 2015, according to [Office of Personnel Management] projections, more than 50 percent of the 7,746 senior executives in place at the beginning of 2011 will have left government, taking with them key institutional knowledge and critical skills."

Ron Sanders, a senior executive advisor at Booz Allen Hamilton, says the report shows that succession plans, whether for HR or some other part of the company, do not have to extremely sophisticated in order to work well.

"It can be simple and effective without being simplistic," he says. "Even a very basic succession strategy is better than none at all. I don't want to understate the challenges to even a basic approach, but those challenges are surmountable with the right mind-set." 

But Steve Epner, founder of St. Louis-based consultancy Brown Smith Wallace Consulting Group, says "HR is usually an office overwhelmed with short-term needs. They are focused on what everyone needs them to do. Like the shoe cobbler's children, they are often barefoot."

And lack of time was one of the four major barriers respondents cited by survey respondents. The others were inadequate funding, limited ability to assess and select candidates, and challenges with workforce forecasting.

Wanda Gravett, who teaches in Minneapolis-based Walden University's masters in human resources management program, says downsizing has taken a heavy toll on HR.

"It is clear that, in the last few years of downsizing, HR professionals are asked to do more with fewer resources in quicker time than ever before," she says. "There often isn't ample time for HR to focus on their own succession planning."

Epner agrees: "When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is difficult to remember you are supposed to be draining the swamp."

Another barrier, according to the report, is the propensity of HR professionals to move between federal agencies: Between 2008 and 2010, HR had the highest percentage -- at almost 45 percent -- of employee transfers.

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"HR professionals aren't leaving federal service; they're leaving their agencies," according to the report. "Clearly, rising federal HR stars looking for chances to grow professionally will go where the action is."

The report offers a five-point plan for HR managers to follow in order to create a workable succession plan: List critical jobs and project vacancy risk; discuss future needs; analyze gaps in the existing talent pool; develop strategies to close those gaps; and evaluate progress and update succession plans every six to 12 months.

Gravett says leaders in large, federal departments -- including HR -- should also be mentoring "at least two" talented and experienced individuals at any given time.

"One would potentially replace [the HR leader]m" she says, "and the other would literally be in waiting, ultimately replacing the replacement."

Mitch Wienick, president and CEO of Kelleher Associates, a Philadelphia-area consultancy, suggests that federal agencies should take a page from the playbook of "sophisticated" companies.

"One thing HR does in sophisticated companies is bring line managers in for one- and two-year rotations in HR," he says. "This accomplishes two things: First, it gives line management an appreciation of the importance and complexity of the HR role. And second, after the rotations are done -- and assuming the experiences went well -- it [creates] HR advocates within the organization that it likely didn't have previously."

The report by the Washington-based Partnership and the McLean, Va.-based consulting firm explores how extensively federal agencies are planning for succession, "with a particular examination of an at-risk occupational area that ironically has responsibility for succession planning for the whole government: the federal HR workforce."

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