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The Best Succession Planning Practices

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Roger L. Kemp, MPA, MBA, PhD, ICMA-CM
November 12, 2018


The following succession hiring practices were developed during my career as a City Manager. The city’s elected officials always agreed with these hiring practices. The city’s union presidents and their employees never had any complaints about them either. Also, the media and press—local, regional and state-wide—never complained about these hiring processes either.

I was personally happy, as a professional, with these hiring practices and their outcomes, in each of the cities that I have managed over the years in California, New Jersey and Connecticut. Since no one ever complained, I personally used these hiring practices for many years in the cities that I managed during my public service career.

This article will focus on succession hiring practices in local governments, for our cities and towns. I have developed these practices to fill department head positions in smaller and medium size departments. Small departments have no Assistant Department Head position, while larger size departments do have an Assistant Department Head position.

The hiring guidelines used included the criteria that the applicant’s loyalty means nothing, and that the applicant’s friendship also means nothing either. The only qualifications that mean anything are the applicant’s professional qualifications and being one of the most competent applicants. These professional and objective succession hiring practices are highlighted below.

Smaller Department Hiring Guidelines

For those recruitment practices where no Assistant Department Head existed, I would contact the President of the State Professional Association for this Department Head position. Recent recruitments of this type included a new Finance Director (FD) position, a new Human Resources (HR) Director position and a new Information Technology (IT) Director position. Each of these State Professional Associations were contacted during these hiring practices.

I would ask the State President of these associations to recommend three members of their professional association to me that I could use to serve on my city’s selection committee. They would always give me the names of three department heads that I could use to form a Selection Committee that would be used for the selection process. The committee would work together to narrow down the list of applicants to three finalist positions. They would personally conduct the interviews with the finalists for each position, and they would also check their references (with the HR Department to if they wished to use their services).

When the Selection Committee was done with their selection process they would give me the names of the top three finalists for a position, and I would personally interview all these finalists, and then make my final selection for this department head position based on their recommendations.

Larger Department Hiring Guidelines

For those recruitment practices where an Assistant Department Head position already existed I would personally interview this person and ask them if they would be willing to be appointed as the “Acting Department Manager” when their boss leaves. I would ask him/her to agree to a six-month appointment to serve in the “Acting Department Head” position.

If they were doing a good job during this time, I would personally ask them if they would like to be the permanent Department Manager for this department. They can make this decision based on their assessment of their own performance during this period. I would also assess their performance during this period, and if the Acting Department Head did a good job, and s/he personally wanted this position, then I would appoint them to it permanently. Almost without exception, the number two person in a large department ultimately became the official Department Head.

Outcomes of These Selection Practices

The typical outcomes of the hiring practices used for these department manager positions were well received! Only the best applicants were appointed during these objective professional selection processes. The stakeholders all agreed that these processes were excellent hiring practices. These department manager selection processes have been used many times, always with positive results.

The city’s elected officials were always satisfied with these hiring practices. The city’s union presidents were also always satisfied with these hiring practices, and most importantly, the public was also always satisfied with these objective recruitment practices. No complaints were every made by anyone during the use of these professional objective hiring practices.

For these reasons, these succession planning practices for department head positions evolved over many years during my public service career, and I am highlighting these professional hiring practices for your consideration, so that public sector managers can use them in the future to benefit their organization and the citizens that it serves.

Author: Roger L. Kemp, MPA, MBA, PhD, ICMA-CM, has been a career city manager in CA, NJ, and CT. He is a Practitioner in Residence, Department of Public Management, at the University of West Haven.; and a Distinguished Adjunct Professor in the Executive MPA Program, at Golden Gate University. He is also a frequent speaker on topics related to local governments. Roger’s personal website is www.rogerkemp.org/ and his e-mail is [email protected].

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