How to Develop Your Own Succession Plan

John Skorobohacz details the five steps he’s taking as he looks for someone to fill his public-sector shoes as chief administrative officer for the Town of Innisfil, ON

John Skorobohacz is a motivated change agent who has a passion for building sustainable organizations but doesn’t necessarily default to tried-and-tested approaches. “Sometimes the path least taken can provide you with the most rewards,” he says. He started his career in the private sector, working in a finance role at a Toronto law firm, but he has been in the public sector for 33 years, and he now looks back on his time with great pride. “Working in local government is a rewarding career and allows you to make a difference in the lives of people in your community,” he says.

1. Set a time frame

When John Skorobohacz was recruited in 2010 to be chief administrative officer (CAO) of the Town of Innisfil, Ontario, located on the western shore of Lake Simcoe, 80 kilometres north of Toronto, he gave the town council a five-year commitment. Now in the fourth year of that commitment, he’s looking at his exit point.

“When you come in to lead an organization, you have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish, and if you can’t accomplish that vision in five years, then you need to reassess your ability to lead,” he says. “I had the opportunity to start with a relatively clean slate and set about putting into place a strategy for a five-year period, and I’ve now indicated, with the end in sight, that the final phase requires a succession plan with an eye toward leaving the CAO role following the upcoming municipal election.”

2. Identify the challenges

Recruiting in the public sector hasn’t been difficult historically, Skorobohacz says, but times are changing, and it is starting to get more challenging. One reason for this, which is also affecting the private sector, is a huge demographic shift: the baby boomers are leaving the workforce in droves. And because public-sector employees are often part of an excellent, defined pension plan, they are quick to leave when the opportunity for retirement arises. The second challenge is that the public sector is not seen as a hotbed of innovation, which makes it tough to recruit younger employees looking for stimulating work environments. “This has placed a lot of pressure on us to adapt to a new style of workforce, transfer corporate knowledge from retiring employees departing the organization, and skill up the individuals coming in,” Skorobohacz says.

3. Change the organizational structure

In planning his succession, Skorobohacz looked beyond his own role and restructured Innisfil’s municipal organization as a whole. “Rather than operate in a traditional silo style, which a lot of public-sector organizations do, I recommended to the council that we develop a cross-functional team approach,” he says. “We pulled people together from different areas and put them on strategic teams so [that] they can work together to improve service delivery, employee engagement, and community growth. By flattening the organization in this way, we’ve empowered employees and brought a number of frontline managers into the decision-making process.”

In other words, when Skorobohacz is gone, the Town of Innisfil, regardless of who is at the helm, will be in a position to thrive. This will become essential, given that the provincial government estimates that the town’s population will increase from 34,000 to 56,000 by 2031.

4. Ensure that corporate knowledge is retained

Additionally, the aforementioned frontline managers now report not to Skorobohacz himself but to two newly appointed deputy CAOs. Those roles didn’t exist before Skorobohacz recommended to the town council that they be created. The individuals in the deputy CAO roles will be “acting like sponges” for the next 12 months, absorbing as much as they can about the operational components of the municipality in advance of Skorobohacz’s departure. “My role is to coach and mentor them,” he says. “We meet weekly to review the overall change-management process currently underway in the organization and address issues which are critical to the future success of the organization and our community.”

5. Locate a replacement

The Town of Innisfil’s next CAO should have a number of qualities, according Skorobohacz. “It’s not about a specific educational background or designations but leadership skills and the fit of the individual into the organizational structure,” he says, explaining that his replacement must have a good understanding of the operation of the municipality and ensure consistency of the vision articulated through the community’s strategic plan, known as Inspiring Innisfil 2020.

The final decision regarding a successor will rest with the town council. “I’m hoping that these deputy CAOs will be seen as the internal candidates to beat,” he says, explaining that such a turn of events would tell him that the work he’s doing today has paid off. “I’m approaching this as both an obligation to the future success of the corporation as well as what leaders are responsible for delivering. I believe that once you have accomplished the things you’ve set out to accomplish, it’s time to take stock to ensure the continued success of the organization. Stepping aside and letting the people you’ve developed [step forward] is an important part of ensuring a sustainable organization.”