Succession Planning in a Lab: What, Why, Who, and How

Succession Planning in a Lab: What, Why, Who, and How

A solid strategy can save you time and resources

When I think of succession planning, the first situation that comes to mind is the boardroom of a multinational company, filled with executives and investors trying to find a replacement for the CEO who announced their retirement. However, succession planning can relate and benefit not only global businesses but also improve lab operations. As a lab manager, you are responsible for the day-today operations and management of lab resources, while talent management might not be something that was included in your former training. This article intends to help you navigate the process of succession planning and facilitate you and your coworkers’ career transitions and retirements. Whether you are a lab manager of an academic, industry, or startup lab, succession planning is worth paying attention to as it can provide a valuable strategy for talent management and save you and your organization time and resources in the future.

What

Succession planning, or rather succession development is a proactive process of identifying key leadership and technical positions and shifting your employees to the right positions at the right time upon organizational changes like career transitions and retirement. Succession development in a lab is a multilevel process. It corresponds to identifying and training successors for not only senior positions in a lab but rather for every position: from lab technician to research associate, principal scientist, and lab manager. It helps continuously align employees’ talents with core values of your lab, maintain its strengths, and address its weaknesses.

A succession plan is not a replacement plan. It’s an active process of development (hence the term succession development) of your employees. It requires not only a document (e.g. an actual plan), but also an active program that includes skills development, follow-ups, improvements, and supporting funding. The program requires objective and performance metrics. The scale of succession development depends on the size of your lab and affiliated organization. In its turn, a replacement plan is rather a reactive process, where the position is filled when it becomes available. It doesn’t matter as much if it would be an external or internal hire. However, it comes at the price of not only external search but also current lab members’ engagement and morale—more on this in the following Why section.

Why

So, Why do we bother with succession planning in a lab? There are numerous benefits, with some being obvious (like uninterrupted lab operation) and others somewhat surprising (promotion of collaborative culture).

Uninterrupted lab operation

Having no technician to operate an instrument may result in the work overload for a lab manager and other lab members, slower results turnover, and loss of research advantage. Having a succession development program in place would allow an uninterrupted workflow and happier co-workers.

Coworker engagement

According to the Hireology team, “ninety-four percent of employers surveyed report that having a succession plan positively impacts their employees’ engagement levels.” What would increased engagement provide? Positive workplace culture, increased effectiveness, and longer workforce retention, to name a few.

Collaborative culture

Having a proactive succession development program in place designed around leadership training and skills development in a group and individual settings would promote cross-functional collaborations and foster meaningful connections in your lab.

Who

The million-dollar question in succession planning is, “Who is responsible for it? Is it a CEO? Team of senior executives? Professor? Or a lab manager?” We broke down the answers relative to the common types of workplace.

Academic lab

As you probably know, the position of a lab manager in academia is fluid. For example, in the academic setting, anyone from a research associate to a postdoctoral fellow can hold the title of a lab manager. The primary role of a lab manager is to support lab members in their work and ensure smooth operations of the lab. Identifying key lab positions and projects is usually done by a professor. Therefore, it would be safe to assume that it is a professor who usually develops a succession plan. However, “the lab manager can provide staff suggestions, conduct candidate reviews, and assist during the interview process,” says Yan Li, financial and administrative coordinator, lab manager of professor Robert Campbell’s lab at the University of Alberta. This assistance to upper management (a.k.a professor) is incredibly valuable for the development of an effective succession plan.

Industry lab

In industry, C-suite executives are typically responsible for the development of a succession plan. And although there might be more regulations around lab management in an industry lab compared to an academic lab, the role of a manager to maintain the morale of the lab and assist upper management in succession development is similar to an academic lab. The lab manager is the on-the-floor operator and record keeper. As a lab manager, your unique perspective and insights into succession planning (e.g., lab members’ skills, engagement, and productivity) improves the odds of the plan being successful.

Start-up lab

In a start-up environment, a succession plan might need to adopt an agile form, similar to the business model itself. There might not be years of operations to develop and perfect the process. These days, the high mobility of the workforce, especially in the tech industry, requires high agility of the succession plan. Therefore, creating a collection of protocols and operating procedures, as well as training your team to be able to fill in for each other’s positions, or at least be aware of each other’s project progress, might be a good start.

How

Depending on the organization, there are multiple ways to approach succession development. Below, there are five ways that can be used immediately.

Plan long-term

Successful succession development is a long-term process spanning years. It has objectives and performance measures to provide a valid framework for continuous improvement. In a service lab, it might look like each member learns how to operate and troubleshoot every piece of equipment. Meanwhile, suitable candidates have professional and leadership development opportunities. Making the candidates aware of the succession development process will deepen their engagement, although one needs to be careful not to alienate other lab members.

Identify skills

Succession planning is not only identifying your successor, but also making sure each employee is using their best skills to the best of their abilities. This might require identifying if your lab members have any skills gaps and bridging them. This process can be done using software. For example, Plum software harnesses the power of artificial intelligence and psychology to identify your employees’ talents and help you make position decisions.

Establish short-term goals

Having short-term goals like quarterly professional development reviews and conversations around each lab member’s career goals will facilitate the development of the succession plan. It will also help anticipate and analyze potential forthcoming transitions and changes. Asking your lab members about their career goals will help you to know what people actually want in their careers. For example, not all employees strive for management positions. It’s a great opportunity to check in and see where things are at.

Account for future roles

With the rapid development of technology, including process automation and artificial intelligence, your lab day-to-day operations might change within a few years. This change means that roles and positions might evolve and merge. That is why a continuous review of the succession plan, its performance metrics, and analysis of what the lab will look like in two to three years will keep the succession plan relevant at the time of change.

Have a hiring policy

Having an external versus internal hiring policy is also a part of succession development. Internal hiring policy will create career growth paths for current lab members and deepen their engagement. A good rule of thumb might be having <15 percent of external hires to continue bringing fresh ideas to your workplace.

Succession planning is a proactive long-term process of securing your lab’s competitive advantage and success. The best thing about it? It is never too late to start succession planning. If you are not sure where to begin, raising this question with upper management will show your engagement and care for the long-term success of the organization and create meaningful career paths and connections within your lab.


Olena Shynkaruk, PhD

Olena Shynkaruk, PhD, is a writer and scientist with many names (a.k.a., Alyona and Ally) and a passion for renewable energy technologies. In her spare time, you can find her curled up with a book or applying her synthetic chemistry skills to the art of baking. Connect with Olena on LinkedIn or email her: olenaoshynkaruk@gmail.com.