Develop a Staff with Leadership Potential

As the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age, corporations and public agencies around the nation have acknowledged the need to develop a succession plan strategy to prepare for future leadership needs. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) in San Jose, Calif., is proactively getting ahead of the inevitable exodus and has launched the first succession plan pilot program, which is already in its last month of implementation.

VTA General Manager Michael T. Burns focused on the development of future transportation leaders when an extensive, organization-wide study brought to light the critical needs of the authority. He said, “We were in the foreseeable position that if we did not move from the acknowledgement phase to an implementation phase, VTA would quickly fall behind in developing potential future leaders within our organization. We could not afford to experience this lapse in leadership.”

He enlisted the support of the executive team members to ensure that the program would remain a high priority despite competing organizational demands.

With the support of administrative services executive management, the succession plan task force was created to develop a pilot program to prepare staff to compete for upcoming positions by creating a talent pipeline for the organization. Important elements to developing the program ranged from benchmarking other public agencies’ efforts at succession planning, selecting target classifications, developing competencies and designing a leadership curriculum.

Instead of the traditional approach of identifying potential successors and focusing a training plan for those individuals, the task force pursued a leadership academy model focusing on development rather than selection. VTA’s Information Technology Department was selected as the target division for the pilot and a leadership curriculum was designed and developed for the information systems supervisor classification.

Developing a pilot program

The program was made available to all agency employees. The enrollment process was structured to extend leadership development opportunities to all eligible staff, based on a standardized selection process. It gave credibility to the program, so VTA’s bargaining units supported it.

The 12-month pilot was launched in September 2012. One engineering employee and nine IT employees were selected for the voluntary program to be trained on competencies, such as analytical thinking, conflict resolution, customer focus, oral and written communications, project management, and team building.

Participants spent about 110 hours in 20 unique courses, which included instructor-led classes, coaching sessions, workshops and a special lecture series. There were also three self-paced leadership reading assignments and a team project spanning two months.

About 30 percent of total curriculum time was done by internal trainers. The task force consisted of three full-time employees who dedicated only a small percentage of their time to the program by combining tasks.

Limited staff resources posed issues implementing and maintaining the program because the three task force employees still had to perform regular duties and couldn’t dedicate more time to the program. The other challenge was the VTA IT department is small and wasn’t operating at full staff since a team of core members were attending courses and training but still needed to perform regular duties.

Participants got to use their new training before the program was even completed. Gary Miskell, VTA’s chief information officer, said one participant used the training to resolve a staff conflict. “The participant handled a potentially troublesome situation in a professional and calm manner. I would not have foreseen this individual to be able to approach this conflict with such skill and effectiveness just a few months earlier, prior to starting the program.”

Those in the program indicated the instructors are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, new skills are being learned and have even recommended the training to other VTA departments. Manjit Chopra, VTA programmer and pilot program participant, said “I feel great after yesterday’s training. It has surely overcome whatever fears I had in giving presentations and interacting with customers. I am sure that if VTA can find the resources to extend this training to other VTA employees, it will help address their fears, as it did mine, and also help them do their jobs more efficiently.”

Next Steps

Once the initial pilot concludes in the fall, VTA anticipates implementing the program agency-wide. The challenge will be increasing capacity without watering down quality. It will require fully dedicated, full-time, professionals with the right skill set to implement a succession plan program on a larger scale. It will also be prudent to determine whether the current competencies and level of proficiency targeted in the development of the pilot is a good fit for new classifications.

VTA expects to increase bench strength by developing staff with leadership potential. This program will help build morale by showing employees the agency is being proactive indeveloping skills and providing opportunities for advancement, and will enable the agency to fill positions quickly with qualified candidates. MT

Joseph de Gier is a retired senior human resource analyst for VTA and Maria Luisa Sanchez Ku is the lead on the Succession Plan Pilot Program. Brandi Childress is VTA’s public information officer.