Blog Viewer

Succession Planning for Special Districts

By Kristin Withrow posted 05-25-2023 02:53 PM

By @Ron Stassi, P.E.

Having served as the manager of mid-sized and small governmental utilities, I developed an awareness of the limiting circumstances faced by smaller organizations in addressing succession planning. Large agencies often have the luxury of filling top positions from among an internal pool of qualified candidates, however, for most smaller community services districts this is seldom the case.

This discussion will focus on how to address hiring challenges that are often faced by small districts while still honoring a long-standing tenet: Those receiving district services deserve to know that the best available candidates are considered for key positions. Strategies that can be employed for both long-term and immediate and unexpected situations follow.

Attracting Top Management Candidates

Often the internal candidate pool in a small district is limited as a result of being constrained by the fact that no internal candidate can meet the current job requirements. As well, small districts may also require that certain positions call for a technical or professional degree. Because of the prominence and responsibilities of a district manager, the public is often best served by filling the position through an open recruitment. Qualified outside candidates will likely come from local experienced managers and supervisors while non-traditional candidates may be found in a pool made up of the following: other local district or public works employees looking to advance or broaden their experience; a skilled employee that has lost (or is about to lose) a job due to economic downsizing; an early retiree from another agency with a strong background that wants to return to the workforce and is looking for a job to supplement an existing retirement income or is bored with retirement. Any of these possibilities could lead to a viable candidate against which internal personnel can be measured.

Advanced Planning and Positioning Strategies

Take certain steps well in advance of any key vacancies so the district is well positioned to address its key personnel needs ahead of any expected occurrences. One action that can serve to increase an internal hiring pool is “broad banding” job descriptions. Broad banding is the process of combining two or more job specifications into one, making duties broader and more inclusive rather than narrow and exclusive. This can also bring a benefit that extends beyond succession planning in that it can create a larger internal candidate pool. Broad banding also makes it easier for management to cross-train, rotate assignments, and reassign personnel when and where the need arises.

  • Maintain competitive salaries and benefits as well as knowing the compensation for competitive positions in your area. This includes having information for non-district positions that may draw candidates from the same market pool. Besides attracting candidates, this also promotes retention.
  • Consider involving other stakeholders beyond board or staff members, such as community and employee organizations, in hiring and organizational discussions. Also, try to avoid and defuse any other situations that could lead to conflict.
  • Finally, network! One method is to utilize external development/training programs. Leadership and management programs and conferences such as those offered by CSDA can help prepare internal candidates for position openings and provide the opportunity to identify other candidates for current or upcoming job openings.

Addressing Immediate or Unexpected Needs

Disregard the concept a position needs to be filled in accordance with past practices when addressing immediate needs, for example, only hiring an engineer because it has always been done that way before. Although an engineering or similar education brings a certain perspective to a job, the trend is to consider and appoint from among a broader range of professionals.

Recruit with a more prestigious job title, such as CEO, director, or manager. Rather than use “superintendent” in a job title, a change of title to “manager” could cause potential candidates to apply for a position opening they might otherwise pass on because of preconceived notions about what the role or prestige of a manager might be compared to that of a superintendent.

Take a breather! Consider contracting if time might be needed to develop an internal candidate or for the employment outlook to improve. Past retirees including those from similar districts as well as consulting firms may be able to fill short term unexpected needs.

Ron Stassi is on the Board of Directors for the Vandenberg Village Community Services District. He worked nearly 50 years for California municipal utilities in a technical, supervisory, or management role. He was the general manager for two California municipal utilities and also worked for Navigant Consulting, Inc.