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Perspectives on Succession Planning

By SRAI News posted 12-09-2021 09:27 AM


Perspectives on Succession Planning

Succession planning is an important part of long-term organizational success. Learn about what it is, why it's important, and how it has been implemented at the University of Southern Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and Michigan State University. 

In the field of research administration institutional knowledge about organizational procedures, sponsor rules and regulations, and the nuances of interpersonal relationships with faculty, administrators, and program officers are critical to sustaining long-term institutional success. Yet planning and executing the transfer of that institutional knowledge often falls to the wayside. Inevitably, we’re bound to take on new opportunities, or team members will take promotions or retire. What can be done about this inevitability? Succession planning! The University of South Carolina’s Division of Human Resources defines succession planning as “a strategic plan that aligns talent management with the vision of our university. Succession plans anticipate and prepare for the future human capital needs, critical to operations and long-term organizational goals. Tasked with identifying potential succession candidates, and planning for and investing in their development, our executives are creating a talent pool of prepared individuals capable of moving into vacated pivotal positions to ensure continuity of operations and meet the demands of the future.” (USC – Division of Human Resources, 2021

By anticipating and planning for departures, either your own or your team members, you can ensure that staff on your team or in your organization have the skills to move into vacant roles. By implementing succession planning we can all be confident that we are leaving our organizations in better shape than when we started. Succession planning also safeguards that all the work you’ve done, the improvements made, the mark that you left can be continued and built upon by future research administrators. 

Three research administrators in various stages of their careers share their perspectives on succession planning, as well as their approaches to carrying it out. 

Perspective from Marcia Landen, Associate Vice President for Research at The University of Southern Mississippi

I’ve had a great career, full of wonderful people, exciting projects, and great friendships. But it’s not too long now until I embark on my next adventure. I have two main goals for succession planning: (a) recommendations to the Vice President for Research, and (b) knowledge transfer to my successor. 

Recommendations for the VPR. My role, the Associate Vice President for Research (AVPR), is the gateway between the central pre- and post-award functions and cabinet-level leadership. I’m the one keeping an eye on policy, procedure, best practice, changing regulations, technology solutions (and headaches), and what’s on the horizon. In order to make good recommendations, I have to reflect on the current organization:

  • What is currently functioning well? Where are the trouble spots?
  • Where is expertise and specialized knowledge in existing staff? Are there gaps? How can gaps be addressed?
  • What critical functional skills will be missing when I leave? Can/should we provide training and development to existing staff to fill the gap?

Then, assuming no major job duty or responsibility changes, what should the VPR look for in a new AVPR?

  • What knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are needed here at USM? KSAs for consideration include: education, work experience, core competencies, technical competencies, evidence of leadership, and a professional network. Culinary skills a plus.

In identifying KSAs, I am aware that I bring my own biases, preferences, and life experiences. USM needs to fill a position, not replace a person. 

Knowledge transfer. My focus here is on transferring USM-specific knowledge. I hope to leave a guidebook pointing to sources of information, sort of like Rick Steves or Fodors travel guides. I just need a catchy title.

  • What comes up periodically, such as our SRAI LevelUP subscription or active master agreements?
  • What things are underway that won’t be finished when I leave?
  • What recurring issues are there that just haven’t been solved?
  • What are the current risks with existing systems, processes, and policies?
  • Where are the resources, internally and externally? 

I hope I have had a positive impact on the university research mission, individual researchers, research administrators, and others across campus. When the time comes, I will be glad to hand off the responsibility to someone else. Until then, this is the time for reflection and planning so that major changes can occur with as much stability as possible. 

Perspective from Carly Pigg, CRA, Coordinator of Grants and Development at Louisiana State University School of Nursing

As someone who serves a department and manages both pre- and post-award activities as the only research administrator, I do not have anyone to fall back on if I were to be out for an extended period of time, which I was for three months in 2017 after I had my son, or if I left the institution. The 2021 SRAI Annual Conference session Business Continuity in Research Administration: Maintaining Operations through Crises and Departures intrigued me for this very reason. What strategies do I have to implement so that if I am out for an extended period of time, someone can seamlessly take over my responsibilities? 

The audience interaction during this session, as well as the discussion led by presenters Marcia Landen and Tyler Tulloch, provided several light bulb moments for me. Two of these that I have since implemented were the “Hit by a Streetcar” manual and keeping a daily diary. I have known for some time that I needed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the many tasks that are the responsibility of my office. My issue was where do I even start? I know what I do on a daily basis but can I verbalize that without forgetting something? The answer to that was simple and came from another attendee - a daily diary. If I keep a daily diary of everything I do, I won’t forget anything. At the end of each month, I will turn that diary into a more formal SOP. This will most likely take a bit of time to make sure everything is included, but it will have easy-to-follow detailed directions on each task. 

Perspective from Tyler Tulloch, CRA, Grant Services Manager at Michigan State University Extension

As part of a succession planning process for me, as well as the MSU Extension Grant Services team, we actively engaged in developing procedures manuals for our key areas of responsibility. These manuals are living documents, constantly updated to reflect new or changing information, while documenting unique circumstances we might come across. On a more granular level for me, I identified important recurring tasks and reports that were directly my responsibility, to ensure these could be continued in the event of my departure. 

After I identified these key tasks and responsibilities I assessed team members’ knowledge, skills, and abilities as they related to my responsibilities to identify gaps. Once these gaps were identified, I could start planning and developing targeted professional development plans to enhance the teams’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. Leadership buy-in is critical at this stage because some of the most valuable professional development opportunities can be educational opportunities offered by organizations like SRAI. However, if budgets are tight, you might just have to get creative in identifying or developing experiential professional development opportunities. Measuring progress by updating the assessment comparison is crucial to ensure progress is being made in preparing team members for succession. 

Helpful resources for your succession planning journey:

Authored by

Marcia Landen, Associate Vice President for Research
University of Southern Mississippi

Carly Pigg, Coordinator of Grants and Development
LSU Health New Orleans

Tyler Tulloch, Grant Services Manager
Michigan State University





12-13-2021 11:27 AM

Excellent article on succession planning... something we all need to think about regardless of how close we are to retirement.  Succession planning is essential for ensuring that business continuity remains intact.

12-10-2021 02:48 PM

This is a very helpful piece, thank you all! Kathy Halvorsen