One of the wonderful things about working at the American Mathematical Society (AMS) is the passion and loyalty that employees have for the Society and the Society has for its employees. At the AMS, it is quite the norm to be a fulfilled employee for twenty years, and not uncommon to find those who have thirty, or forty years under their belt. I know we are not alone in having this sort of profile. If this sounds familiar to you, then in this post I attempt to help you think through how to develop a strategy for succession planning, recognizing that in today’s world, people just don’t stay at their jobs as long as they used to.

ducks in a row

To consider succession planning is to consider how to keep the engine running, recognizing that your operation is made from many interlinked parts, and that we live in a world of rapid and constant change. Succession planning is a key part of strategic planning, but it should also be a continuous operational project, one that should be on the front burner at all times.

One of the first priorities is to create a balance of personal succession, strategic succession rooted in what’s best for the organization, and the ability to develop individual progress from within. You have to recognize that when an organization starts talking about strategic planning, and succession planning in particular, staff may react by worrying that their jobs are at risk. Recognize that for staff, any whiff of change can induce fear, low morale, and perhaps paralysis, so communicate with your staff and involve them in the change process.

It is important to develop employee skills, simultaneously recognizing that if they leave, you need to have a relatively seamless means of carrying on, reducing the risk of disruption to your business. Mixed up in all of this are market pressures to incorporate new technologies, and reduce costs, perhaps considering how to balance a need for outsourcing key operations with retaining personal relationships with the community you serve. At the AMS, for example, we are experts in the use of LaTeX. We not only helped develop AMSLaTeX, but other tools as well that fit in with how we produce usable products for the mathematical community. In succession planning, we need to look at what value we add, and how we want to be viewed by the community.

If your organization has high staff turnover, your reaction to such long employment tenure may be that this is unhealthy. How on Earth does your organization stay up-to-date on best practices? How do you incorporate new technologies? How do you bring on board fresh, energetic minds that may shape your future? A more sober reaction is to recognize the value of your employees and to celebrate their passions and contribution to your organization, bearing in mind the need to consider succession planning.

To consider succession planning is to consider how to keep the engine running, recognizing that your operation is made from many interlinked parts, and that we live in a world of rapid and constant change.

With a mature workforce, you need to watch that knowledge and skills do not reside in one person. When that person leaves, for whatever reason, it is entirely possible that you will be stuck and with their departure goes an essential resource that you will be scrambling to replace. One way to tackle this is to create a work culture that allows individuals to create their own succession plan. How would I replace myself? This is a question every employee may ask themselves. Of course, as the technologies present themselves, and strategic priorities shift, it is also essential to have a more macro, strategic view of how employees do their work, and what contribution they may make most effectively. Key to effective succession planning is to think early on about how an employee may progress within your organization. Hiring from within, rather than recruiting from outside the organization, creates an internal sense of growth and opportunity – as well as ensures continuity. But there are risks with this approach, such as the possibility of perpetuating an unproductive and “stale” work culture.

Let’s address an elephant in the room: the pressure to reduce costs and outsource operations. Although this may make sense from a cost perspective, let’s not forget that part of the publisher’s role is that personal relationship linking the author to her published work. This is especially true for book publishing. Many publishers are struggling to understand how they may continue to publish books as a viable business. Outsourcing indeed is one path to reducing costs, but then again for many publishers their unique selling point is the care, attention, and flexibility they provide to their authors. When an author completes their book and hands their baby off to a publisher, it can be a traumatic experience. Authors want this process to be personal. They need advice, and there is almost a sense of midwifery in that relationship between an author, their book, and the publishing process. It is all about balance. It no doubt makes sense to outsource parts of the workflows that can be done at scale at lower cost, but if your needs are more personal, perhaps because the demands of your field are more nuanced, or perhaps because you have a unique value you provide to your community, then do not rush to outsource despite the pressure to do so. Instead, think about how mission interplays with scale, and diversity of the publishing program. Consider how to incorporate new business models such as open access ebooks, sales by chapter, rental models, and premium services such as the ability to annotate the ebook.

As you develop your organizational strategy and consider a succession plan, think through what you as a publisher bring to the table. I would suggest that the publishing lifecycle embraces the author from the germ of an idea, carrying on through production and technical work, allowing for the work to be presented and sold in a way that is culturally appropriate for your markets. A mathematician, a historian, an engineer, a medical professional, a lawyer are all going to have completely different driving forces at work, both as author and consumer. Our job is to publish, bearing in mind culture designing an approach to succession planning that resonates with our community culture.

How are you doing it?

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Associate Executive Director, Publishing at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.

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2 Thoughts on "Succession Planning"

Robert interesting set of thoughts. The alternative to consider is that 50% of staff is hoping management will change and see the creation of plans as not a threat but rather a breath of fresh air.
I, like you, am a firm believer in developing staff, but only staff which deserves to be developed. In short, I would think within any plan there should be an evaluation of staff and a readiness to both reorganize and replace. Additionally, what does management expect and more importantly what does membership expect out of publishing, and are they on board with any succession plan.
Whenever I think about succession plans, I vividly recall my platoon sgt picking up the horn in the middle of a fire fight and saying: “Capt’n we need a new Lt ours is dead!”

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