Creating a Succession Plan for Your Technical Team

We often think about a succession plan for managers. But, if you’re not thinking about a succession plan for your technical team, you’re falling prey to local shortages, and hiring the same old kinds of people. You’re not getting diverse people. That means you may not be able to create innovative, great products. It also means your people might be stuck. As soon as they can, they might leave.

Sometimes, when I coach people on their hiring process, I discover that they have all one kind of person. Everyone has five years of experience in one domain. Or, everyone has fifteen years. Or, everyone has the same background. Everyone all looks alike. Everyone—even though they were hired at different times—has exactly the same demographics.

This is not good.

You want a mixture of experience on your team. You want some people with less experience and some people with more.

I once had a client who, through their hiring practices and attrition, ended up with people who had no less than 25 years of experience. Every single person had at least 25 years of experience in this particular domain. It was very interesting introducing change to that organization, especially to the managers. The technical staff had no problem with change. But the managers? Oh boy. They had worked in a particular way for so long they had problems thinking in any other way.

That was a problem.

It’s not that less or more experience leads to easier or more difficult change. It’s that heterogeneity in a team tends leads to more innovation and more acceptance of change.

So, what can you do to create a succession plan for your team?

  1. Assess the number of entry-level, mid-level, senior, and principal technical staff you have. I think of entry-level as 0-2 years, mid-level as about 2-10 years, senior as about 10-20 years, principal as about 20 years and on. Your ranges may vary. If you have narrower ranges, ask yourself why. If you start senior engineers at 5 years of experience, I want to know how the heck you can. You can call them anything you want. Are they really senior? Or, do you have title inflation?
  2. If you don’t already have one, create an expertise criteria chart. That’s a chart that shows what the criteria are for each level. Because your people might just have a year of experience every year, and not really have acquired any valuable experience. You and I both know people like that, right? Take the qualities, preferences and non-technical skills that you value the most when you hire. Explain what you want in each level, and that’s how you create an expertise criteria chart for your team.
  3. Resolve the criteria across the organization, so that your team is on par with the rest of the organization.
  4. In your one-on-ones, have a conversation with each person about their career goals and how you see their career over time. Provide feedback. If they want coaching, provide that.

Now, you have data. You have information about how people are performing against what you need. You have information about how you could “slot” people into the HR ranges, if you need to do so. And, if you need to hire people, you have the opportunity to hire people where you need to do so.

I did this when I was a manager. I needed the data to bring one person to parity. I needed the data later to bring an entire testing team to parity with the developers. This is a ton of work. You can do it. It’s worth it.

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