The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing

Leadership and Development 

The Professional Development Educator and Leadership Succession Planning

Michael R. Bleich, PhD, RN, FAAN


The professional development educator plays a crucial role in developing, implementing, and evaluating potential leaders for succession within a health care organization. This responsibility requires partnering with human resources and other stakeholders, determining and leveling competencies, ensuring evidence-based content, and evaluating impact. Ideas for business case development are presented. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2019;50(3):104–106.]


The professional development educator plays a crucial role in developing, implementing, and evaluating potential leaders for succession within a health care organization. This responsibility requires partnering with human resources and other stakeholders, determining and leveling competencies, ensuring evidence-based content, and evaluating impact. Ideas for business case development are presented. [J Contin Educ Nurs. 2019;50(3):104–106.]

Increasingly, health care organizations are concerned with having access to the human talent needed to fulfill vacancies in leadership and management roles. The reasons for vacancies are many: retirement, a desire for better work–life harmonization, staffing demands, increased employment opportunities within the health sector, and pressures from navigating the politics and demands from multiple stakeholders that strip the joy out of leading. Leadership succession programs are one strategy to ensure that the opportunity to promote from within the organization is plausible, and programs formerly limited to senior-level positions are now cascading to middle-manager and charge positions, meaning that those in direct care staff roles are being selected for development.

Leadership succession programs, however well intended, are not a panacea for solving leadership and management vacancies, whatever the reason for the openings. For one thing, successful development programs require content that is difficult to deliver en masse when what is needed is situation-based and action-learning tailored to individuals. Selecting material in project management, change dynamics, complexity science, analytic decision making, and its impact on work cultures are too often chosen in watered down, quick-sell, pop culture-oriented references preferred over the more profound scientific knowledge that is essential to lead and manage in a transformative manner. For instance, while many will tout transformational leadership as their style, few have grasped that transforming people, cultures, organizations are rarely accomplished and are achieved over time in structures known for bureaucratic inertia. Transformation generates remarkable changes that take place with unexpected and extraordinary results, leaving one awestruck. It is hard to discern from hundreds of references to transformational leadership, which has deep links to science, so each requires careful evaluation and thoughtful analysis in selecting a framework for succession planning experiences.

The Professional Development Educator as Leadership Succession Coach

The professional development educator has a critical role in leadership succession program development, implementation, and evaluation. Although these programs often come out of human resources, the professional development educator must cross boundaries to be a purveyor of reason and balance. The educator:

  • Must evaluate the mechanism used to determine who is selected for development. Jones (2019) stated that advancing an internal candidate may make logical sense, but not necessarily emotional sense, noting that individuals with passion and capacity for transformational change are not easily discovered. Often, rating and ranking systems used for selecting potential candidates for a succession development program are biased, are open to favoritism, and may restrict diverse candidates. As Rose (2016) revealed, the rating and ranking systems used throughout our lives, including those used in performance evaluation, have been ingrained in our thinking such that we insufficiently think through its ramifications—as though it represents “some kind of objective reality about people” (p. 10). Rose reminded us that human potential “is nowhere near as limited as the systems we have put in place assume” (p. 14).
  • Will influence and approve the competencies to be validated, ensuring these competencies reflect the level and organizational proficiency needed in practice, and appropriate to the design of the succession development program. Ramseur, Fuchs, Edwards, and Humphreys (2018) reported that the competencies for their health system program entailed financial management, human resources management, performance improvement, foundational thinking skills, technology, strategic management and clinical practice knowledge, upon which was layered human resources leadership, diversity, and shared decision making, along with personal self-awareness and reflective capacity. This list of competencies—and you may choose others—reinforces earlier statements regarding the comprehensiveness and intensity of succession coaching.
  • Must select qualified faculty to provide high-level content, instruct with real-world awareness, and have experience as a transformational leader in the real sense of its meaning. It is a reasonable expectation that succession development programs include reading assignments, exposure to complex change dynamics within and outside the organization or unit, external developmental opportunities through validated and reliable leadership programs, and tailored one-toone coaching with feedback sessions.
  • Will establish outcomes measures to measure the impact of the individual and overall succession development experience. What is the placement rate of those candidates selected for advancement? What is the turnover rate of these candidates, particularly in external upwardly mobile positions? What operational efficiencies have been gained as a result of the program? Have patient and staff satisfaction results been influenced in any way? Groves (2017b) reported on the impact of succession management practices in U.S. hospitals and provided a substantive rationale for evaluating the effects of this type of program, including the metric listed.
  • Should be prepared to serve as a coach and evaluator—to the program participants, mentors, senior-level executives, and others invested in the succession planning program. Stone and Heen (2014) advised that feedback—giving and receiving—is a crucial competency and has three dimensions: appreciation feedback (expressions of gratitude), coaching feedback (expressions of direction or “how to”), and evaluation feedback (expressions that summarize the context and overall performance of the individual receiver in context and over time). Educators can apply this model to individual participants, those champions of the program, and senior-level executives.

The Business Case for Succession Planning

This article presents a sober reality: succession planning programs are complex and high-stakes endeavors and should be treated accordingly by professional development educators. Despite the complex nature of this type of continuing education, it is likely that more of these programs will come into existence for the reasons cited earlier. Leadership talent and the business of recruiting and retaining leaders at all levels of the organization is high stakes and risk-fraught, particularly given statistics of organizational mismatches in hiring external candidates.

To this end, Groves (2017a) identifies five best practices that will summarize this discussion. First, elevate succession management as an organizational strategic priority. Intentional planning, based on turnover, and projected vacancy data analysis should drive strategies to ensure the availability of talent (recall that succession development programs are but one solution to be paired with other concurrent initiatives). Second, and complementary to the data collection suggested in the first strategy, is to document the looming retirement wave, not only within the organization but within the region. Examine the pipelines for new talent. Create academic–service partnerships to harmonize the input and outputs by being a player with academic partners.

Next, talent assessment and talent pools should be formalized. Recall the potential landmines in rating and ranking individuals, so the assessment mechanisms used can reflect an accurate assessment of capabilities with minimal bias and with consideration to diversity (many instruments in everyday use lack validity and reliability or are ill-suited for talent assessment). The alignment with diversity initiatives merits special consideration to capture the potential of all talent without regard to age, gender, culture, socioeconomics, race, and other variables. Finally, be prepared to document a return on the investment made. Given the full range of succession development programs and the lack of standardization between programs, it is possible that some initiatives may have limited resources to invest, whereas others may have a rich array of human and fiscal resources. Currently, thoughtful evaluation mechanisms need development to measure the impact of succession program design, implementation, and evaluation, based on the ideas presented above. The return on the investment should reflect these differences, staying attuned to the management literature for cost and content comparisons.


  • Groves, K.S. (2017a). The business case for succession management capabilities: Evidence-based strategies for development talent and sustaining leadership continuity. Retrieved from
  • Groves, K.S. (2017b). Examining the impact of succession management practices on organizational performance: A national study of U.S. hospitals. Health Care Management Review. Advance online publication. doi:10.1097/HMR.0000000000000176 [CrossRef]
  • Jones, B.W. (2019). Creating a culture of promoting from within. Dimensions of Critical Care Nursing, 38, 50–53. doi:10.1097/DCC.0000000000000330 [CrossRef]
  • Ramseur, P., Fuchs, M.A., Edwards, P. & Humphreys, J. (2018). The implementation of a structured nursing leadership development program for succession planning in a health system. Journal of Nursing Administration, 48, 25–30. doi:10.1097/NNA.0000000000000566 [CrossRef]
  • Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How we succeed in a world that values sameness. New York, NY: HarperOne.
  • Stone, S. & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Dr. Bleich is President and Chief Executive Officer, NursDynamics, Chesterfield, Missouri, and Senior Professor and Director, Langston Center for Innovation in Quality and Safety, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing, Richmond, Virginia.

The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.

Address correspondence to Michael R. Bleich, PhD, RN, FAAN, President and Chief Executive Officer, NursDynamics, 221 Jasmin Park Court, Ballwin, MO 63021; e-mail:


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