Transferring executive knowledge — whether to one likely successor or a management team — is about laying the long-term groundwork for future leaders to take charge. In recent small group conversations with pool executives, we’ve been exploring just what laying that groundwork means.
Here are four preliminary best practice ideas about knowledge transfer stemming from these discussions:
1. Give future pool leaders a variety of responsibilities.
One pool executive said he’s successful in his position today because he’s played a role in all areas of his pool’s operations over the course of 30 years. He worked in claims, underwriting and risk management roles prior to becoming the executive, and he directly oversaw the pool’s IT, finance and HR operations before hiring a deputy director.
However, as the pool became bigger and the staff more specialized, similar opportunities for others to engage in cross-functional learning decreased. As a result, the pool’s current managers and potential leaders don’t have the same broad background and perspective as he does.
Consider how you can distribute job assignments and accountabilities in order to give your pool’s future leader(s) experience across pool operations. Regardless of whether their future is as top executive or part of the management team, breadth of experience and familiarity in all areas of pool operations will yield better leadership.
2. Carefully manage assignments to high performers.
A lot of our knowledge transfer conversations have been about those poised to step into leadership roles (“high performers”) and how much learning they must first complete.
Many pool executives say they need to more carefully identify and manage learning assignments for their successors so they’re sufficiently challenged — but not overwhelmed. With too few learning opportunities, a high-performing up-and-comer will get bored; with too many, they may not appreciate what is truly a priority.
Take time to review how you are assigning new learning opportunities to your future leaders. Find challenges that will keep them motivated, but set clear priorities. Allow them time to achieve proficiency in one or two areas at a time instead of working on learning six new things all at once.
3. Hold contracted organizations accountable for succession.
Pools contract out for a fair amount of work and expertise and are well versed in how to maintain contract accountabilities. But many pools fail to manage two important knowledge transfer considerations with contracted service providers:
- In your internal succession plan, name the contracted people who directly support your pool. Do this just as you would a staff resource. Whether it’s your actuary, your financial consultant or an outsourced claims manager, the contracted nature of the relationship doesn’t change the importance of their contributions to your pool’s leadership continuity.
- Require succession planning within your contracted terms. So you don’t lose valuable insight and expertise when contracted resources change, make sure your contract terms require service providers to build sufficient internal “bench strength” to support your needs.
4. Allow your successor to make supervised mistakes — and prepare your governing body for it.
One challenge for a pool executive who has developed themselves through years of experience is allowing others the same chance to learn by doing. One pool director described this as letting their successor “walk close to the edge of a cliff” — all while monitoring for what might be just a stumble and what could be a catastrophic misstep.
Of course, no matter how prepared an executive successor might be, there is some learning that can only happen the hard way. Do what you can to create an environment where future leaders can learn directly — and where you can mitigate the failures that do take place.
In addition, outgoing pool executives play an important role in preparing their governing bodies for the likelihood of a few bumps in the road as a new executive finds their footing. Help your governing body appreciate the long view and prepare them to support their new executive through an experience-based development process.
Our knowledge transfer conversations with member pools are yielding incredible insight about how top executives can create an environment that prepares future leaders to succeed them. We’ll be having more such discussions in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for further insight.
For more assistance in your pool’s knowledge transfer work, contact us or use the resources available in our Succession Planning Residency.
Ann Gergen is AGRiP’s executive director and a former pool administrator. She has worked closely with and for pools, public entities, reinsurers and related service providers throughout her career.
Published Sept. 21, 2021.