One or more long-planned retirements may be coming up in a transportation department, or a manager may leave or fall ill for several weeks, leaving a critical position vacant. The key to ensuring that services continue without disruption when these departures occur — and that the best person fills the position — is succession planning.
Succession planning is especially important in pupil transportation, a field for which there are few formal educational programs, Pam McDonald, who just retired as director of transportation for the Orange (Calif.) Unified School District, told School Bus Fleet.
“Most of us fall into pupil transportation,” she says. “You’ve got to look within the industry to see who to mentor.”
Following are five tips from four seasoned school transportation professionals to help simplify succession planning.
1. Determine Your Needs.
The first step is developing a long-term vision and three- and one-year goals to ensure that vision is met, according to Michael Shields, the former director of transportation services for Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon. This will serve as a blueprint for planning.
Equally important is assessing the department’s current and future personnel needs, note McDonald and Michael Dallesandro, the former pupil transportation director for Waterloo (N.Y.) Central Schools. In addition to keeping track of upcoming retirements, leaders should identify potential candidates to replace those leaving and determine how to backfill the positions that open when employees are promoted.
Also essential is developing clear job descriptions that include the job’s responsibilities and daily and weekly tasks, says Peter Lawrence, director of transportation for the Fairport (N.Y.) Central School District. Then, the succession planner should review each manager’s responsibilities and determine how the department’s operations will be affected if that manager is out, Dallesandro adds.
“If an operation will be severely impacted if a person is gone for several months, those are the titles I’ve got to identify for succession and train people to do their critical tasks,” he says.
Finally, pupil transportation leaders should examine the department’s organizational structure to see if the status quo should be maintained or if changes should be made, Lawrence recommends.
“Before we replace a position, we ask if we can improve it, if it is meeting our needs, if there is a better title for the position, or if we need to reorganize to maximize the operation’s efficiency,” he explains.
2. Develop a Pipeline.
Another vital element of succession planning is creating a pipeline of staff who are prepared to move into more responsible positions, according to Lawrence. He does this by establishing career ladders for his department and having staff who are promoted train those below them.
Dallesandro, on the other hand, has used transition plans to develop staff. He would ask each staff member his or her goals, then draw a career path.
“A substitute driver who aspires to be a director has a road map of exactly what he or she needs to do to achieve that goal,” he says.
Cross-training is another practice that ensures staff can fill positions when expected and unexpected departures occur. Dallesandro recommends that everyone at the managerial level have some cross-training.
Cross-training also reveals employees’ strengths and weaknesses, says Shields, who uses the information to help staff get training in areas they need to improve.
3. Identify Potential Candidates.
When looking for candidates to fill leadership positions, pupil transportation leaders should cast a wide net, Lawrence and Dallesandro advise.
In addition to current management, they should consider bus drivers, mechanics, and other staff, many of whom have military or supervisory experience and may want to move up.
Another way to identify future leaders is to see who is interested in advancement, McDonald and Dallesandro say. These staff members take courses and attend conferences, do more than their job requires, help their colleagues, and often ask about getting ahead.
“I’ve had several people tell me their goal is to be a pupil transportation director someday,” McDonald explains. “They’ll say, ‘I want to do what you do. I want to be a sponge and learn from you.’”
However, sometimes a supervisor needs to give employees who have potential a nudge by asking them their goals and suggesting they consider a particular position, she adds.
When considering succession, McDonald and Lawrence prefer to hire from within as it strengthens morale and ensures continuity of service.
However, neither are averse to looking outside for personnel, especially if the department could use fresh eyes or wants to make changes. McDonald finds that professional associations are excellent sources for promising candidates, and Lawrence also looks for candidates at other pupil transportation departments who are active in the local transportation supervisors association.
Additionally, administrators should be involved in the hiring process when a new director is being interviewed, Lawrence notes.
4. Mentor Your Top Picks.
Mentoring gives potential candidates the knowledge and experience to fill a more challenging position, Lawrence says.
“The more people can be developed ahead of time, the more confident and successful they will be,” he explains. “If you know someone is going for a position, ask them what they need and informally bring them in and give them experiences.”
For McDonald, that means making candidates her shadow. She shows them everything she does and invites them to high-level meetings so they know how it feels to do her job.
Lawrence and Dallesandro also give candidates special assignments to expand their skill set. These include, among others, working with a principal on a school event; planning transportation for annual standardized exams; assigning them to accident review, vehicle safety, or other committees; and having them report on their work to the school board.
Dallesandro, along with McDonald, has further encouraged potential leaders to take classes and attend conferences to gain professional certification and foundational background on information they are not exposed to otherwise.
Shields adds a personal element to mentoring by hosting interdepartmental book clubs at which future leaders discuss how issues raised in management books relate to work situations. Through these discussions, candidates learn how to handle various supervisory situations, and they form networks they can call on throughout their careers, Shields says.
Lawrence recommends allowing two years to prepare staff to fill director positions and six months for managerial positions. McDonald and Lawrence usually select two to five candidates to mentor for a leadership position.
5. Make it Easy.
Last but not least, pupil transportation leaders should make it as easy for their successors as possible, Lawrence says. That includes providing background information, delineating duties, and having examples of forms available so your successor can see what needs to be done to keep all aspects of the department running.
“My goal is that when the school district hires someone, they can take the department to a bigger and better level,” he says. “We’ve had great success, but fresh eyes make it possible to improve."