Mentoring for Succession at University of Georgia

by Allison McWilliams, of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government,
a public service and outreach unit of the University of Georgia.



As a land-grant institution, the University of Georgia has a three-fold mission of teaching, research, and service. The Vinson Institute at which I work, fulfills part of that third mission though public policy research, training and development, technical assistance, economic and community development, and international development.

While employed by the Vinson Institute I helped to develop, administer and deliver leadership development programs for state and local government entities, such as the Office of Child Support Enforcement, the Department of Family and Children Services, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources, and others. While these programs were well-planned and well-executed, they did not necessarily address any identified need of the organization, other than a general sense that developing leaders is a good thing. And certainly, there are many “soft skills” leadership books available to prove it. Our clients were happy with the services they were receiving, and frankly we felt good about the services we were delivering. (Are you expecting another “shoe to drop”?)

Identifying a Need

But about two and a half to three years ago, we noticed something altogether different happening within organizations. People were beginning to leave. And not just a few here and there, but all over the place, in government, in corporations, in non-profits, and, not surprisingly, in higher education as well. Why? Because the Baby Boomers are retiring in droves. And with their departure comes vast chasms of leadership and management talent, despite all of the “soft skills” books and classes consumed over the past 10-15 years. It’s not because those books and classes aren’t adequate; many of them are quite good. It is that they are not specific to the needs of a particular organization, even down to the needs of a particular position. And that is precisely what succession planning attempts to address. Having identified this need, we set out to learn all that we could about the field in order to provide it as a service to our clients, many of whom were shocked to discover, once they took an in-depth look at the figures, just how
many people could walk out of their doors in the next 12-18 months. As part of our research, we attended conferences, read books, and bench marked other organizations for best practices.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I was approached by the Vice President for public service and outreach at UGA, who wanted to know if we knew anything about succession planning, because the university is also filled with baby boomers who can’t wait to retire. Even more so as they discover that with ongoing budget cuts and no hope of raises anytime soon, financially speaking, at least, retirement is the better option to working.

A year and a half later, we are proud of the steps that we have taken. We are moving towards a day of culture change, a day when improving ourselves, thereby improving the organization, becomes the way we do business.

Succession planning is not, and can not be a one-time activity. It is an ongoing process, an ongoing examination of what the organization should stop, should start, and should continue.

University Applications of Management Succession Planning

Succession planning at a university, especially at a large research institution such as the University of Georgia, can be touchy. On one hand, universities act like large corporations, employing thousands of people, working to satisfy multiple stakeholders, and making real economic impact on the surrounding community. The levels of bureaucracy are, at times, mind-blowing. Just trying to get something simple done, like getting travel reimbursed, can be an arduous process.

On the other hand, universities are still very much like “mom and pop” operations. Often the principal players have been in place for decades, running things the way they see fit. They serve as supreme ruler over their own personal kingdom, acting pretty much with autonomy, and occasionally waging war with rival kingdoms. The push for change and for progress can be a slow one, and it often comes up against arguments like, “We don’t fix what ain’t broke,” and, “We’ve always done it this way.”

Every college and university is currently experiencing a tension between these two elements:

1. the corporate, “entrepreneurial” university, and
2. the historic notion of the ivory tower and more of an autonomous organization.

There are two reasons for considering this situation.

First is to reinforce the idea that no one model of succession planning will work in a university environment. If we use the heir apparent mode there are legal issues that arise from concerns about singled out some as being “better” or “more capable” than others, or as “rising stars”. For that reason most organizations will use the “development for all” model and pretend that everyone is on the same level, and that everyone has an equal chance to get to the top slot.

As crucial as it is to develop everyone within an organization, we must also deal with political realities. In some organizations, there will be no planning for succession of the president, the vice presidents, and even in some cases, a level below that. Those will be political appointments.

The second reason for addressing the changing environment of higher education is that it is key to why you must be constantly scanning your environment, planning for future needs, and closing those gaps. The move to a more entrepreneurial university, combined with continual budget cuts, will without a doubt result in more departures of senior staff. Folks who have spent 30 years in relative obscurity, happy to do their research, are now being asked to go out and find income, to support themselves. For many, it just won’t be worth it.

How Mentoring Fits Into Succession Planning

Business Week reports that over 35% of employees who are not being mentored within 12 months of being hired, will be actively looking for another job.

To put it simply, mentoring can be the cheapest, easiest, most cost-effective, and most fulfilling means of “closing your gaps” in the succession planning process.

  • Except for a kick off at the start to design the program and training , it usually does not require outside facilitators or trainers.
  • It builds on and increases internal strengths.
  • It connects the future of your organization to the present and to the past.
  • It assists in transferring institutional memory, skills, and knowledge, often the single most important goal of a succession planning program.
  • It lets those folks who stopped mentally showing up for work a year ago, know that they are valued, and it can provide a spark of renewed energy and motivation as they complete their tenure. It tells them that what they have accomplished at the organization is important, meaningful, and worth remembering.

In turn, the young person gains a connection to the institution that extends beyond a paycheck, feels more and more loyalty to it, will learn about the history of the organization, and understand why their job matters. The learning possibilities are:

  • learn new skills
  • find a new career path
  • discover previously untapped strengths
  • make connections to people in other parts of the university
  • find that they have knowledge to pass on to their more senior colleagues.

Every one of us has been influenced by the people we have met, and the wisdom that they have passed along to us, a wise counselor, a good, ethical, moral person, an effective leader, teacher or administrator, someone who was your ally, your advocate, your coach, someone who helped you along the path that you have taken? Someone, indeed, who was your mentor.

The people who work for us deserve that same opportunity, not a guarantee of promotion, but the opportunity to become the best version of themselves that they can be. And the best result of all from using mentoring is that you will end up with a more engaged, motivated and high performing workplace.

Preparation for Implementation

Here are the steps I took, which seemed to work for our situation

  1. I researched various assessments for possible use with our program, seeking those which focused on our competencies. 
  2. I identified several people on campus to interview in person, including the director of our on-campus training and development office and certain academic faculty. This was done both to inform my decision maling and to increase buy-in. 
  3. I benchmarked what other colleges and universities were doing in leadership development and mentoring   and identified 15 schools for further study in leadership development and 8 schools for further study in mentoring. Out of these, I selected seven programs as good models or matches with what we were trying to do, and contacted them. 
  4. Then, I compared key components to our identified competency areas and recommended models and began to sketch out potential curriculums for all three programs. 
  5. Since we identified the executive level program as addressing the most crucial, immediate need, I focused there at the start. We identified 16 people to participate in a pilot program. These people have made a two-year commitment to serve in the pilot of the first program.

The Advisory Committee was key to all those functions, both because of their assistance in doing the work, and because this group will help develop future programs too. We are committed to implementing at a future date our early career development program, which is more of the “development for all” model,.

Lessons Learned

1. Start slow, start small, and build successes as you go.

Perhaps my biggest frustration and greatest learning has been dealing with the   Institutional bureaucracy. Before I moved over to the VP’s office, I operated with relative autonomy, controlling my own work. Rarely did I have to clear decisions through more than one level. That is not the case with this program. It cuts across so many institutional units and challenges status quo sufficiently that every step I take must be coordinated with and complimentary to the plans and schedules of others.

Create small wins, small successes now, for big payoffs in the future. You can not change a culture overnight. It must be changed one day, and one person at a time.

2. Use your research on the needs for and benefits of these programs to gain early the support of key executive level decision makers

A potential roadblock to implementation of this program has been the ongoing budget cuts to public service and outreach at the university. Happily, so far this has not affected the commitment of the vice president to these programs. We all know that in times of cuts it is often training and development which is first to go, but yet are the most needed. I give credit to the Vice President for recognizing these facts and that we have never needed development for the future of our organization more than right now.

3. Use the leverage and support of your program champion at the top. Of course, it is critical that the most senior people in your organization support the effort and are kept aware of its progress. It’s also crucial that their support be featured and utilized as a lever to spead the word and build a broader base of support. In our case, for example, every communication about this process has come from the Vice President himself.

4. Do all that YOU can to gain and increase buy-in at every level of the organization. For example, our formation of an advisory committee to get people engaged with the process, and the needs assessment at the front end, both helped build awareness and commitment. As a result of our needs assessment, I have directors from around public service and outreach asking me on a constant basis how the program is progressing. They are excited about it, and eager for it to be implemented and to succeed.

5. Commit the resources needed to make the program a success. – Do not overestimate the value of a first impression. It is so important that you come out of the gate with a superb product, so that the participants of that first program then become the champions of it, selling it to the next group. This means adequate staffing, adequate time and planning, and adequate money for all kinds of resources and other costs.