Succession Planning for Seasoned Employees

Don’t get caught flat-footed when your experienced team members retire

In the 1997 world championship for the men’s 4×100 relay, Brian Lewis was added to the US team at the last minute. He and Tim Montgomery spent the next 90 minutes practicing the hand off.  Passing the baton may seem trivial, but some teams train together for months to get it just right. Lewis was meant to pass the baton to Montgomery, but Montgomery mistimed his start. By taking off too early, Montgomery was almost at the end of the exchange zone before Lewis could catch up.

Montgomery slowed down and looked back to see Lewis sprinting at full speed to catch up. As one slowed down and the other sped up, Lewis ran right past Montgomery, nearly elbowing him in the face. Montgomery ducked and the handoff never happened.1 The runners were outside of the handoff zone before Lewis could get the baton into Montgomery’s hand.

Flubs like this were becoming a trend in the 4×100 relay. The US men were disqualified in the first round of the event, just like they were at the 1995 world championships and the 1988 Olympics, because of mishandled attempts to pass the baton.The US men’s team had two things that made them stand out among the other teams – high turnover and poor training.

The team had a new coach with a new coaching style every year. Team members changed yearly as well. And they lacked the training they needed, with weeks or sometimes days to prepare for championships like this. Their efforts to develop chemistry and communication weren’t enough to counteract the bigger problems they were facing.

While the baby boomer generation retires in droves, companies are also struggling with turnover and a lack of training. It makes it hard to pass the baton to the incoming workforce.

Shoulder-to-shoulder training is failing to pass knowledge from those leaving the business to those just starting. The talent pipeline for many industries is weak. So, the gap between when a retiree leaves and when a new person starts can be enough to lose the knowledge altogether.

Businesses need a succession plan for critical positions and particularly for people with expert knowledge they can’t afford to lose.

Preparing for the pass

Logically, it makes sense that relay races are faster than individual events. It’s more efficient for four sprinters to work together than to have one lone runner burn out and eventually lose momentum. But without practicing a smooth handoff, your organization can be left with skills gaps that eventually impact bottom line metrics like waste, efficiency, and productivity.

Most working baby boomers say they’ve shared half or less of the knowledge needed to perform their job responsibilities with those who will take over their responsibilities after they retire.

  • 18% have shared all knowledge
  • 25% have shared more than half
  • 21% have shared about half
  • 16% have shared less than half
  • 21% have shared none3

The skills and knowledge that companies used to assume employees would acquire over time can’t happen amidst shorter tenures and high turnover rates. Time is a resource companies just don’t have anymore.

You also can’t afford to train the way you used to. Labor shortages make your expert employees busier than ever. With fewer people to do the actual work, many companies are paying overtime just to keep up and fill the gaps.  So those with the most valuable skills don’t have time to step away and train new hires.

Taking a two-pronged approach to capturing exiting skills and using that content to train other employees will help you close the skills gap faster and more affordably.

With the right digital tools, you can keep the experts working and train their replacements on the job by turning tribal knowledge into actionable SOPs.

Begin by capturing your One Best Way procedures and troubleshooting guides from your outgoing employees. It’s important to do this digitally and in a consistent, procedural format so it’s easy to retrieve and consume later. Otherwise, what’s the point? Wherever possible, incorporate videos and photographs to support critical or complicated steps.

Don’t create more problems for yourself later by trying to add this content to a Learning Management System (LMS) or a shared file system.

Instead, use a platform that can deliver work instructions to the person who needs them, at the point of use. With a one-time investment from your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), you can capture information from them and deploy it back as on-demand digital training. You’ll get your SMEs back to work more quickly and have a long-term tool to help train others.

The team members using training content from your SMEs will benefit every time they access the content. They can continue to refer to it every time they perform tasks, until they are as comfortable with the work as the people who have been doing it for years.

Accepting the hand off

When people who are new in position have access to work instructions and job aids, they pick up their new responsibilities quickly. Classroom training, shoulder-to-shoulder, and LMS coursework takes much longer because it lacks repetition, consistency, and context.

Those who learn by completing critical tasks following digital checklists make fewer mistakes and work more efficiently. As an added benefit, they’ll be creating a record of their activity. Both employees and managers will have visibility into the increasing skill set of new in position employees.

You can multiply that benefit by incorporating quizzing to reinforce important points and evaluations to confirm skill mastery. The combination of structured training, information recall, and observed proficiency will make your teams more capable. Doing it all digitally adds to your record of each employee’s skills.

Your digital records will increase visibility and make it easier to see where employees need to improve. You’ll be able to identify what steps they need to take to advance, and they’ll see it, too.

Rapid results for a digital transformation project

One of our manufacturing clients recently took on a digital transformation project to give employees access to a single source of truth. They also wanted to create a standard training protocol that would make it easier to train and upskill employees.

With Acadia, they turned their employees’ tacit knowledge and paper manuals into digital SOPs. Those SOPs could then be turned into checklists for other operators to follow, reducing time, rework, and errors on critical procedures. They created a more structured on-the-job training process that provides consistent information for consistent results.

Teams have instant access to the information they need to do their work, and managers have visibility into compliance against One Best Way procedures.

By using Acadia over a 10-month period, they:

  • reduced a common procedure’s execution time by 2.5 hours
  • increased employee understanding and knowledge of machinery
  • provided consistent training to all new in position employees
  • improved communication between shifts

The program has been incredibly successful and received a lot of positive feedback from employees. More importantly, they’ve seen the results they needed: trainees learn faster and retain more of what they learned. Those using Acadia are closing performance gaps and increasing employee skills with greater task proficiency.

Starting the race

While large portions of the labor force plan to retire, only a fraction of open positions can be filled with new employees as many industries face a tight labor market. Automation can help ease the pain, but only to a certain point.

Companies that can assess the skills of their employees and reskill them according to demand will thrive. They’ll reduce their reliance on external talent and instead nurture internal talent according to future requirements and strategic goals. Employees will benefit as well. Learning new skills will advance their careers and improve their income.

With Acadia, you can build high-performing autonomous teams of self-motivated employees, all operating safely and efficiently. If you’re anticipating a skills gap in your workforce, reach out. We can help you get to a smooth handoff.


  1. Medal or nothing: U.S. men’s sprinters have a handoff problem
  2. U.S. Men foul out of 4×100 relay
  3. New Express Poll: Boomers Staying in—and Returning to—the Workforce

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