Leading the Way

Three first steps for effective succession planning

In light of the predicted nursing shortage, nursing leaders need to take strategic action to prepare nurses to assume key leadership roles in the near future. Proactive succession planning programs are a key strategy for addressing the impending shortage of nurse leaders. Such planning involves identifying highpotential individuals and formally developing them to assume leadership roles. A primed pipeline of competent nurses prepared to step into leadership roles may reduce recruiting expenses, increase leadership continuity, and decrease role-transition stress.

In the healthcare arena, succession-planning practices are limited. Organizations with programs that identify and prepare future leaders typically focus on the top executive levels. A 2012 literature review recommends that leadership pipelines be primed through succession planning at all management levels. This article outlines the initial steps in getting succession planning off the ground.

Strategic planning is needed to delineate desired leadership competencies and identify future high-potential leaders. Organizational commitment is essential for identifying and developing internal talent (individuals with high leadership potential). These organizations need to be transparent about their commitment to helping nurses reach their full potential through succession planning. Nurses who feel valued and see a chance to grow within the organization are less likely to look for outside opportunities. Likewise, organizations known for identifying and developing internal talent become desired workplaces, which enhances recruitment.

A succession planning committee is a prerequisite for organizations seeking to provide leadership continuity through succession planning. The committee should begin with these three steps:

• identifying positions with high vacancy and turnover rates

• establishing role competencies


• developing methods for identifying internal talent.

Identify critical leadership roles through analysis

The committee first identifies leadership positions with high vacancy and turnover rates by analyzing all nursing leadership positions over the last 5 years. Committee members then identify employees currently holding these positions and note their tenure to get information on turnover rates and recruitment trends.

Next, the committee determines how these employees most often are identified or recruited for leadership roles, as well as their development and preparation before taking these positions. For example, nurse managers (often considered first-line nursing leaders) commonly are chosen based on their clinical expertise or long unit tenure. But although they’re clinical experts, nurse managers too often lack the formal education and leadership training needed for the nurse manager role. This probably explains why their turnover has been as high as 50%. To increase retention, leaders should identify and develop high-potential nurses with leadership and management experience.

Establish role competencies

Once the committee identifies leadership positions, it establishes specific role competencies. Clear, concise competencies are crucial for identifying high-potential leaders, and provide a framework for designing the nursing curriculum to educate and develop these individuals. Competencies provide a more objective measure for selecting future nurse managers than bedside expertise or length of time on the unit. They also provide an objective way to measure competency and performance once a nurse assumes a leadership role. The nurse manager role should have well-defined competencies in both leadership and management. A nurse identified as a high-potential candidate for development as a manager can be evaluated against those specific competencies.

After identifying competencies, the organization and nurse leaders disseminate them throughout the nursing staff. Competencies can be incorporated into the organization’s mission statement, vision, and values and embedded within leadership behavior statements or evaluations. (See Resources for developing competencies.)

Develop methods for identifying internal talent

Next, the committee uses a strategic method to identify high-potential internal talent. These individuals should be evaluated based on recognized competencies. For instance, desired leadership competencies can be included in annual reviews; nurses who score high in these behaviors and skills could be interviewed by current nursing leaders about their career trajectory. Leaders should determine these nurses’ career aspirations and find out if they desire a leadership role. Those who do are key candidates for strategic and intentional development. In contrast, an organization that develops individuals who don’t wish to be leaders is wasting time and money. (See Succession-planning leadership program.)

Nursing leaders must prepare the next generation of nurses to assume key roles that help advance healthcare delivery. Doing this will take strategic planning based on the organization’s needs and desired leadership competencies. Identifying and developing high-potential nurses as leaders are the keys to starting a succession plan that provides leadership continuity and improves the workplace environment. This strategy also helps healthcare organizations reduce recruiting costs and improve retention.

Jennifer L. Titzer Evans is an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Southern Indiana College of Nursing and Health Professions in Evansville.

Selected references

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. Nurse Manager Leadership Partnership. 2006.

American Nurses Association. ANA Leadership Institute.

American Organization of Nurse Executives. AONE Nurse Leader Competencies. 2016.

Griffith MB. Effective succession planning in nursing: a review of the literature. J Nurs Manag. 2012;20(7):900-11.

Kallas K. Profile of an excellent nurse manager: identifying and developing health care team leaders. Nurs Adm Q. 2014;38(3):261-8.

Rothwell WJ. Effective Succession Planning: Ensuring Leadership Continuity and Building Talent from Within. 4th ed. New York: Amacom; 2010.

Titzer JL, Shirey MR. Nurse manager succession planning: a concept analysis. Nurs Forum. 2013;48(3):155-64.

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