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Talent and succession planning in higher education institutions

Jun 10, 2021


  • EDITORIAL TEAM Talent Management Institute
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Talent and Succession Planning

Human capital has in recent years achieved its rightful recognition as being possibly the most treasured resource of an organization. Equipment, finance, processes, and technology are all important, but in the end, it is personnel who get you there.

For this reason, developing and implementing a good talent management strategy with effective succession planning is critical. It allows the organization to develop the necessary talent and skills in its people so they work for their employer for an extended period and do not let critical positions fall vacant.

That being said, let us look at higher education institutions and the role of talent strategy in this sector.

Higher education institutions are important entities.

A higher education institution is a unique organization, whose main purpose is the provision of higher education services to students and to the community. Its purpose is not profit as for business institutions. Given the critical role of higher education institutions in developing human capital, their leadership talent replacement is an important aspect, as poor succession planning can undermine the quality of the institutions.

Talent management is critical at higher education institutions.

Managing talent is very important for higher education institutions. Competition between these institutions is up, and they need to map the talents of their existing workforces along with addressing future leadership talent issues. There is also the challenge of recruiting and retaining talented people as well as managing their shortages or utilizing their talents fully. And the changes in demographics and external labor markets cannot be underemphasized.

Take a look at the following trends to understand why a paradigm shift is needed in talent and succession planning at higher education institutions:

  • Literature and research have shown how performance and reward programs offer poor support for effective and robust talent management
  • Leadership development and succession get the short shrift, even though they are getting more attention than earlier
  • Strategic talent is not a high-commitment and high-priority area for institutions, who do not commonly gather, analyze, or leverage data on the fit between skills and roles
  • There is low agility in operations, with competitive advantage suffering due to inadequate attention toward managing talent

Higher education institutions must facilitate good talent management practices.

It is hard to manage talent better without the requisite support. Senior officers serving as advocates, mentors, and program facilitators are a must, as is a strong connect between strategic plans and the need to manage talent. Talent must be developed holistically at all levels of the institution, and coaching and other growth opportunities at work serve as key fillips to these endeavors. Practices must take note of the fact that HR managers at these institutions deal with more “constituencies” – administrators, faculty, and operations staff – each of which has its own practices for employee recruitment, compensation, and evaluation.

Here are the best strategies to manage talent effectively:

Top Talent Management Strategies

  • Link with institutional growth: Higher productivity, better alignment, incentives for exceptional performance, effective recruitment, adequate resources, and bench strength all contribute to the growth of the institution.
  • Link with new departmental or institutional projects: These require a plan for employees to ensure their success. The right recruitment plan and keeping all staff members focused on the goals boost the chances of success.
  • Link with institutional efficiency: An institution bringing in quality hires and ensuring information on demand can effectively do more with less.
  • Link with institutional innovation: Innovation changes institutional practices and its success depends on how employees can cope. ERP systems, targeted hires, internal skill development, and rewards for innovation are all key measures.

Leadership is another tough spot for higher education institutions.

Decision-makers in these institutions are fast approaching retirement. Of the total workforce, over a quarter is near the retirement age, with the share being higher in leadership roles. Some estimates suggest the likelihood of at least a 50 percent turnover among higher education administrators in the near future. Turnover at this scale is a threat to institutional continuity.

The following numbers illustrate this further:
  • More than 40 percent of investment executives within endowments and universities vacated their positions
  • Among provosts, 43 percent are holding their positions for shorter durations
  • Chief academic officers had average tenures of 4.7 years, less than half of presidents

Clearly, higher education institutions need to do more to develop their leadership talent. Their talent pipelines appear to be weak, with less than a third of all sitting chief academic officers looking toward chancellorships or presidencies. Even tenure-track faculty members are not looking for administrator roles. And those in leadership positions often do not have previous executive experience or leadership preparation, as well as an inadequate picture of their role. Some of these institutions teach their students the importance of talent and succession planning, yet unfortunately they themselves are unable to implement these well.

Succession planning is something the higher education institutions must focus on.

Higher education institutions educate and develop not just students but future leaders and thinkers for their nations. However, their strategic talent plans often eschew succession matters by not developing leadership talent in their own administrative staff so that they are prepared for future demands and challenges.

The following is what respondents to an Aon Hewitt survey on succession planning at higher education institutions said:

Somewhat Ineffective

This then has a bearing on the achievement of academic program vision and missions, and affects the identification of training and development needs for managers and the institution as a whole. Talent strategy can make succession effective only by involving all people in the organization – staff, top managers, and executives – and bringing in systematic performance management and a strong human resource information system (HRIS).

Higher education must take deliberate steps for better succession planning.

The need for succession planning is clearly not in dispute. Here are what higher education institutions can do to achieve this:

  • Get a buy-in from senior leaders who can champion the efforts
  • Ensure alignment of succession plans with institutional culture, goals, mission, and vision
  • Plan successions strategically
  • Communicate talent and succession planning carefully
  • Continuously evaluate the people and processes involved
  • Ensure there is no feeling of entitlement, and create talent pools with more than one high-potential candidate
  • Consider external hires as well as internal candidates – the latter have better working knowledge of the institution
  • Adapt roles and performance criteria basis feedback received

In summation…

Talent and succession planning can scarcely be ignored by higher education institutions. As sources of top-notch human capital, these institutions are the gateways to business and national growth and success. Stronger processes offer better insights into the competencies, knowledge, and skills of staff members succession candidates, and accordingly can guide the actions required and talents needed to be developed for the future. As Betsy Rodriguez and Mark Coldren, respectively the VP Human Resources for the University of Missouri System and associate VP Human Resources for Ithaca College, said, “developing leaders from within may be the single-most important exercise for the sustainability and future of your institution.”

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