Preparing for the Future: Succession Planning

In the spring of 2007, a team of consultants from RSM McGladrey that included me assisted the Copper Development Association with a succession planning and staff development engagement. I had the opportunity to interview CDA President & CEO, Andy Kireta, Sr., about the process and what CDA learned that fall.

“The concept of succession planning came up as part of a free-flowing discussion in a CDA board executive committee meeting. We were reviewing the results of a 2005 member survey that was performed as part of a full organizational evaluation” stated Andy Kireta, President & CEO of the Copper Development Association. “The Board asked: ‘Who would most logically fulfill different job responsibilities if we were starting from scratch?’ and that helped us take the focus off particular individuals and move it to how various positions relate to the way CDA operates as a whole.”

CDA senior management initially decided to try to do succession planning internally. They identified a three person team who conducted confidential interviews with every staff member. However, “the Board wanted us to engage a third party to provide an independent perspective,” remarked Kireta. He met George Breeden, a director in the nonprofit consulting practice at RSM McGladrey, when the two served together on a panel on crisis management at the Council of Manufacturing Associations summer leadership conference in August 2006. Kireta and the CDA senior management team decided to retain RSM McGladrey as that objective third party. Breeden assembled a cross-functional team of consultants, drawing from both the NFP (not-for-profit) and MWD (manufacturing, wholesale, and distribution) practices. CDA management provided the team with background material on the member survey and the work CDA had already done and facilitated extensive access to the CDA staff and membership.

Obviously, the Board was already committed to the process. But how did the project team manage to secure staff buy-in?

“Most of the senior management team had exposure to projects like this from their prior industry experience, and most new staff members had little investment in ‘this is how we’ve always done it’,” said Kireta. “But some of the longer-term support staff members were concerned that this was a covert way of getting rid of people or at least making their jobs harder. They were worried about the effects this might have on their retirement plans and seniority. They tended to be the most cautious of change, and they required a different approach.”

The project team addressed the concerns of CDA staff members by correcting staff misperceptions. “CDA exists to make a difference in the copper industry. The goal of this process was to increase CDA’s ability to respond to the needs of our members and to the changes in our industry,” noted Kireta. “Every staff member needs to contribute to that. If we can’t constantly enhance our value to our members and our industry, we close our doors.”

So what was the hardest obstacle to overcome?

“Human nature,” stated Kireta, without hesitation. “You have to remember that people aren’t automatons. You have to be willing to let them express their fears and feelings and to respond appropriately. Some staff members didn’t correctly perceive the goal of this project initially. Once we were able to explain to them that this wasn’t intended as an exercise in firing people, but in making sure people have the support they need to promote the mission of the association and to succeed in their careers, we were able to move forward. Historically, CDA has been very reactive, so switching over to ‘think tank’ style strategic planning was a big change. What’s the ideal, and how do we get there?”

Kireta also noted the importance of support from the Board and members. “Your Board members can be your best friends in a project like this. They’ve all gone through similar processes at their own organizations, so they can share the wisdom of their experience.”

Kireta remarked that the biggest benefit to CDA has been a new focus on preparing people to move up within the organization. “Given the nature of what we do, there is a small pool of qualified candidates. CDA wants to become known as a quality place to work. Part of that involves developing the reputation of investing in staff, which enhances our ability to recruit people with the technical backgrounds we require. We now have a structured, objective way of providing top-quality professional development that will serve them well wherever their career path takes them.”

Additionally, members are now confident that everything the organization does has been examined from the perspective of, “How does this activity benefit our members and our industry?”

So does Kireta have any advice for organizations considering succession planning?

“Do it!” he exclaimed. “Even if you can’t convince your Board to spend the resources on your initial request – and the biggest expense is staff time – continue the pursuit and get it done. Lots of organizations talk a good game, but don’t follow through. Many profess, but few invest. Every organization needs to think about developing staff for the future. And it’s a continuous process. You can’t just do it once and be done with it. The thing about succession planning is that you may be a bit surprised at where you end up, but I promise you, it will be in a good place.”