Knowledge transfer and succession planning

– by Annemarie Travers, Leadership 2020 Hosting Team

At some point or another, we all leave our positions—we change roles, get a promotion, find a new job, or retire. And, during these transitions, we often focus on tidying up loose ends and preparing for the next thing instead of thinking about what (and who) will follow in our footsteps and what we can do to ensure their success.

One way to help make sure your successor is successful is to pay attention to knowledge transfer. The fields of IT and project management have spent lots of time thinking about this area, and while less the human services have paid less attention knowledge transfer strategies, we have been able to learn from other industries and have translated their successes and applied them to our field of service.

Here are some popular knowledge transfer strategies that could be a beneficial part of anyone’s succession planning.

Apprenticeship: Having overlap time with your successor is ideal, providing you with time to share what you’ve learned while in the position, and to provide them with key information. Unfortunately, this very rarely occurs, especially in organizations where resources are stretched. 

Documentation: Some organizations have templates or checklists for transition documentation. If yours doesn’t you may wish to create one. While emails and files provide some documentation, our successor will need some help to know what is most important, and why. A short overarching document with information about where to find key documents, who to consult, and potential pitfalls can be invaluable.

Vision and mission statements: If you are in a leadership role, organizational vision and mission statements can provide invaluable guidance in terms of the underlying values that guide your work. While we often look to develop these when we take on a leadership role, it is just as important to revisit with those who will remain behind prior to leaving. Ideally your successor would be part of this process.

Mentoring: Mentorship throughout one’s career can be formal or informal. As you depart, you may wish to support your successor by helping them to find a mentor (who will assist them in their new role), or you may choose to enter into a mentoring relationship with them yourself. A mentoring agreement to formalize the arrangement, especially in the beginning, can be helpful in establishing and clarifying the relationship. Mentorship agreements frequently include the frequency and conditions of meetings(e.g., phone, face to face), the goals and expectations of the mentoring relationship, and how the goals will be reviewed as well as problem resolution strategies. If you are interested, there are a wide variety of mentorship agreement templates available online.

Invisible handcuffs: About six months before I retired, I realized I carried a lot of “corporate history” in my head. I needed to find a way to share the knowledge I was carrying with my current colleagues so that it would be available after I left. I brought this to the attention of my team, and they proposed invisible handcuffs—we agreed that I would not attend any future meetings without taking at least one member of our team with me. This proved to be an excellent knowledge transfer tool.

Following in someone else’s footsteps is not easy, especially if that person has been well respected. Your next leadership action may be to ensure that you put in place some strategies to ensure that those who follow in your footsteps have a clear and easy path to do so.