4 steps to successful succession planning in EMS

Identifying and preparing the next generation of leaders for your department is a critical responsibility


Training your replacement takes work. Making a plan, finding a candidate, helping them develop and handing off the reins isn’t just good strategy; it is the only choice for your organization to survive.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
— Benjamin Franklin

Contrary to the wisdom of the father of the American fire service and one of the founding fathers of the United States, many emergency service agencies tend to be "penny wise and pound foolish" when it comes to developing their future leaders. It can almost seem to make sense that it would be a waste of time and money to train someone for a position that they aren’t currently doing. Sadly, that kind of thinking produces leaders who may be qualified, but are unprepared for their positions. On the other hand, taking a "Train Your Replacement" mindset early on is a wise investment for individual and organizational success.

Succession planning must start with the end in mind. (Photo/Vermont Department of Health)
Succession planning must start with the end in mind. (Photo/Vermont Department of Health)

1. Start with the end in mind: Make a succession plan

It has been said that the ultimate goal of every leader must be to train their replacement. In the business world, this is called succession planning. If an organization’s method for filling leadership positions consists of finding, "the most senior warm body at hand," or "the most popular employee," or even, "the person with the best field skills," then the best they can hope for is to simply "stay the course" while the world passes them by.

There is no doubt that having experience, being well-liked by peers and having a good clinical foundation are all admirable assets, but by themselves they don’t make a good leader. Unfortunately, if the organization "fails to plan" by waiting until a leadership position is open to seek to fill it, that organization has "planned to fail."  

Perhaps the biggest trap that even well-intentioned current leaders fall into is seeking to train their replacement for their job as it exists in the present. The problem is the challenges that your replacement will face will not be the same as the ones you have managed.

Succession planning must start with the end in mind. What will the Job Performance Requirements be for this new leader? The JPRs must be the foundation of your succession plan.

This is the perfect opportunity to consider not only what challenges your successor may need to prepare for, but also what opportunities they may be able to take advantage of. In other words, what should the job be for your replacement? This should not only guide your succession plan, but this should align with your organizational and personal strategic plans for the future.

2. Finding the fit: Identify suitable EMS leadership candidates

If step one of building a succession plan to train your replacement is looking at what the position will be when you’ll need to fill it, then step two is finding and developing the right person for that position.

A common trap that current leaders fall into at this phase is having the attitude that, "It is their responsibility to prepare if they want the position, not my responsibility to make them ready." Waiting for the right person to fall into your lap exactly when you need to fill a leadership role is leaving the future of the organization to chance with poor odds for success.

Remember, you are seeking a candidate who can be ready for that future position, not necessarily someone who's ready to step in right this second. That mindset will widen your pool of candidates considerably.

In most cases, it is best to begin your search by looking within the organization. This sends a strong message that the organization is there to support and develop employees, not just use them up.

Sometimes, however, an organization may have no ready and suitable candidates, or for a variety of reasons it may be time to bring in some "new blood." For these reasons, among others, it is important for organizational leaders to have good contacts outside their agencies. Future leaders should come from a wide talent pool rather than a closed gene pool.

3. Bridging the gap: Help future EMS leaders develop

Once you have a job description for the future position (the destination), as well as a candidate or candidates to develop (the starting point), it is time to develop a gap analysis (the road they will need to take). The trap to avoid here is setting a "plan" that is simply, "candidate must be ready to do ABC within timeframe XYZ."

Make sure your candidate is more than just a pile of potential to be developed. Have an honest conversation with them and make sure that they are able, willing and ready to begin preparing now for future leadership responsibilities. Likewise, consider your resources. These include your personally available time and effort as well as the resources of the organization. Make sure that both you and your candidate(s) are able, willing and ready to begin.

The mentor (current leader) and protégé (future leader) relationship must be more than, "I talk, you listen." The mentor must provide structure for the leadership development process and feedback as the protégé moves along in the process. The protégé must put in the work to develop their knowledge, skills and abilities, and be accepting of the feedback their mentor provides.

In addition, both mentor and protégé must recognize that the protégé must apply their own creativity and personal style as they develop. Developing someone who does everything you do, exactly the way you do it, will not help prepare your organization to face the challenges of the future.

Education is a key component in the development process. Not just taking classes, but establishing a strong educational foundation with the mentor helping the protégé understand how to apply academic lessons to real-world problems.

Training must go hand-in-hand with education. On-the-job training, including job shadowing and acting in the role of leader in a supervised and temporary capacity, is crucial to teaching the flavor of the job as well as testing the protégé’s abilities. It can also help the protégé know if the job is right for them.

4. Stepping back: Hand over the reins

It can be difficult to watch someone stumble as they grow. It can be a challenge to invest time and effort to develop a leader, only to watch them leave before they take a leadership role in your organization. It can be frustrating to hand over the reins of an organization that you care about and then see new leaders make decisions that are not the ones that you would make. All of this can be hard, but they are not reasons to avoid succession planning.

Remember that in the end you are training your replacement, not your clone. The leaders that you develop will do things that are not what you would do, but that is the point. You're not building a list of instructions for them to follow when you're not around. If your succession plan is solid and your mentoring is strong, you will be giving them the tools they need to help your organization dynamically adapt to future challenges and opportunities. In the words of a famous American philosopher and Philadelphia firefighter, "An investment in knowledge pays the best interest."  

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