Search Close Search
Search Close Search
Page Menu

Reflections: Transition Through Retirement

Developing a Strategy for Succession

By Thomas Grisso, PhD

Your retirement is likely to require that someone takes your place in the future. Succession planning involves anticipating that need.  Many businesses consider it an ordinary part of good management to prepare younger employees to move up and take managerial or executive positions as senior employees retire. Other situations may call for hiring someone new to take the retiree’s place. In any case, part of your approach to retirement should include working with your Department to plan for your successor. 

Some succession processes are fairly straightforward. You have been an important key member of a Surgery team or the Psychiatry Consultation-Liaison Team. Your part in succession planning in such cases may be as simple as giving your Department timely notice, perhaps a year before your planned retirement data, so that the Department can begin a hiring process.  This gives them long enough to begin looking for an able, competent successor to manage the position you are vacating. You can also advise the Department during that time regarding any special features of your job that should be considered in searching for a successor.

But some successions are more complex. Perhaps your position is unique in that you created it and it has come to be associated with your particular abilities and personality.  In such cases, succession will require more than simply hiring a capable person to continue it.  Here are some examples of such situations:

Over the years you have grown a small but nationally-recognized research lab based on a steady stream of grants you have been awarded. You have employed a stable group of research assistants and support staff, and your innovations are well worth further development. Now you are planning to retire. But continuation requires a principal investigator who could keep the grants coming. Will your lab’s special contributions to the field continue or disappear when you leave? 

You have chaired several important department committees for the past ten to fifteen years.  During your leadership, you developed a set of complex procedures and skills for handling these committees.  Not just anyone could suddenly take them on. Your department has come to depend heavily on the committees’ current efficiency. Who will carry on these specialized functions when you retire?

In past years you have developed a model training curriculum for residents in your specialty.  You are planning to retire and it is not clear that anyone is ready to take the lead in maintaining this part of the training program. It is a function that is not adequately compensated and thus not very attractive to others. Yet you really want to see the model continue, especially because it has received national recognition and has begun to be used in other schools.  Will the model you worked hard to develop drift out of existence?          

Succession situations like these are frequent among senior faculty, and they cannot be solved simply by going out and hiring an available replacement in your general area of research or clinical services. The features of the job have developed as a result of your own unique knowledge, skills and creativity rather than the abilities you have in common with all others in your field. You have pride in what you have developed and want to see it continued. For that, you need a successor.

Finding solutions to these more complex succession questions should start with an understanding of the motives for caring about succession.  

Often the department cares a great deal. The faculty member has played a unique role in the department’s clinical training or research or administrative functions, a role on which the department has depended. The department may suffer by the loss of the faculty member’s special role, so it has a collective interest in trying to deal with that loss. 

With or without departmental concerns, often the faculty member has intellectual and emotional interests in succession. Having worked many years on a specific problem or innovation in science or training, one becomes invested in it and wishes for it to live on—not only as a legacy, but because it benefits patients, one’s department colleagues, one’s field of science, or society in general. 

There is no formula or single strategy for handling these more complex succession problems.  The situations are unique and will require different solutions.  But experience suggests some general tips when facing these situations. 

Start working on succession as early as you can

Some successions, like handing over major committee chair or division chief roles in one’s department, should begin at least a year prior to retirement. Some types of succession problems, however, may require that you begin much earlier than that.  If you hope to have a successor who can lead your lab in the future, that person might have to be identified several years before retirement. In some cases the potential successor can be brought up from the ranks—perhaps a fellow in the lab—but in other cases one might need to hire and nurture a faculty member several years before one expects to turn over the lab to their keeping. They must have time to establish their own grant record and credibility to become the leader for the group. One UMass Chan researcher began eight years before retirement to use grant funding to hire a young faculty member as a potential successor, allowing sufficient time for her to build her own grant-funded base before taking over leadership.

Make the process of succession a partnership with the department

None of us is an island. We succeeded because we had department support and because our work supported the department. If your special contributions have played a significant and unique role for the department, you and the department should tackle the question of a successor together. The odds of success are much better than if either you or the department attempts it alone. Sometimes the solution involves the department’s capacities to restructure existing faculty positions and duties so that things that you could not have arranged alone become possible.

Aim for a strategy with overlap

The best strategy includes a period of time when you and the intended successor work together for a while before you retire.  The succession requires special skills and perspectives that you need to have time to pass on to the successor in the course of everyday operations and experiences. A succession plan need not end with retirement. Your strategy might include continuing to provide guidance after retirement, including the potential for continued contract employment by the University covered by continuing research grants or department funds.

Recognize that succession is not the same as preserving the past

No one but you can do it the way you did. And the succession is likely to fail if you or the successor expects that things will keep on being done your way. The survival of a program or project requires that the successor is able to adapt it to ever-changing demands in the future, not make it a memorial that will become obsolete. It requires freedom for the successor’s own career to be advanced based on her unique modifications as the program evolves.  Succession plans often require that a willingness to guide while releasing your control on the future of what you have created. 

Thomas Grisso, PhD 
Professor Emeritus
Department of Psychiatry