Some of the top suggestions from industry leaders is to plan ahead, move quickly on the process, cross-train current staff, develop a ‘playbook,’ build district-wide support, look for qualified replacements in-house first, make training and mentoring a priority, and find someone with both skills and passion for the job.  -  Photo: Getty Images

Some of the top suggestions from industry leaders is to plan ahead, move quickly on the process, cross-train current staff, develop a ‘playbook,’ build district-wide support, look for qualified replacements in-house first, make training and mentoring a priority, and find someone with both skills and passion for the job.

Photo: Getty Images

Whether your school’s transportation department is already planning for a staff person’s retirement or faced with an unexpected departure, it’s best to be ready before there’s a gap in your staff. Here are some suggestions for planning for — and filling — critical roles in student transportation administration.

Succession Planning: A Business Case

So, why do you need a succession plan in the first place? Well, winging it often doesn’t work and leaves the new hire and existing staff in a bind – especially if the person leaving had any duties or processes that no one else knows.

“In any succession plan, you are looking to create a seamless transfer of job responsibilities,” Tom Cohn, transportation director for Helena Montana (Mont.) Public Schools, explains. “As a transportation director, it’s your job to make sure work environments overlap, so as not to create a weak link. The biggest problem when a member of your team, or even you, leaves is finding someone who is already qualified. That’s why is important for everyone on the team to understand the complexities of other team member’s duties.”

Max Christensen, state director of pupil transportation for the Iowa Department of Education, says to take the long view. “Most bus replacement schedules are at least 10 years and usually longer, so plans need to be put into place to accommodate that type of forward-planning. The succession plan allows for a smooth flow of ideas and plans from one manager to the next, leaving plenty of room for new ideas to blossom as well.”

Shannon Weber, director of transportation at the Florence (Ariz.) Unified School District #1, adds that without a plan, all of the little things like shuttles, release details, reporting, funding, and trip processes, can easily be missed. “With a plan in place, it does two things,” she says. “It lightens the load for leadership and backfill, and it empowers and encourages up-and-coming student transportation experts. It shows your commitment to ‘grow your own,’ allowing opportunities for promotion. It also minimizes any perception that we hand pick our favorite folks to fill gaps.”

Weber shares that her school district has a leadership planning program with a strong focus on site-based leaders and a pipeline approach for stepping-stone positions. “Adding student transportation to this plan is new and very exciting,” she says. “It will allow those in student transportation positions to participate in the leadership coursework to be considered for director-level opportunities.”

Key Steps in Designing a Succession Plan

One of the best ways to deter unnecessary chaos is to encourage current staff in critical roles to give as much notice as possible — as in months rather than weeks when possible. Then, bring that person into the fold by asking for their help in revising their job description, organizing training and resources for their successor, and letting them assist in the recruitment process as appropriate, ideally even training and mentoring the new hire.

Another value of time is getting it right and allowing flexibility in the process. Christensen refers to the scenario of a second round of applications and interviews. “This very thing happened to a school district where I had been the transportation director,” he recalls. “I was moving on, and the person hired had been a dispatcher at a large trucking firm. His attitude was ‘how much different can being a transportation director be from being a dispatcher?’ He found out. He lasted all of one day.”

The National Institutes of Health Department of Human Resources suggests these six general steps in its how-to guide.

  1. Identify critical positions.
  2. Develop eligibility requirements.
  3. Identify a talent pipeline.
  4. Nominate successors from qualified positions.
  5. Create an action plan to prepare the successor.
  6. Evaluate the succession plan.

Other factors to work into your plan include:

  • A comprehensive job description.
  • A fair and varied committee to review candidates (ideally a mix of drivers, teachers, and mechanics, in addition to the administrative stakeholders).
  • A training and mentoring period for the person selected.
  • Onboarding processes for a smooth entry to the role, including a “playbook” with resources on tools and technology used, key contacts, policies and manuals, processes, and duties.
  • Good communication with the entire staff of their role in the transition.

Once someone gives notice, the process needs to move rapidly to fill that position, Christensen says. “When identifying the best candidate, few people will arrive at the interview with every qualification and quality that you are looking for. Keep in mind, some skills are learned, some are taught, and some are natural. The interview team needs to determine which skills are the most important and how the candidates match up to those expectations.”

When crafting the job description, it’s important to provide clear expectations and well-defined responsibilities so there are no surprises for either party.

For added success, get buy-in from the entire department and staff. The more people supporting a new colleague, the better!

And remember to continually update all documentation. With technology and duties ever-changing, documents can become dated quickly. Routinely audit and update your playbook at least every year.

Weber suggests asking this question: What do you have to have to inspect what you expect? “Keep your resources efficient, but not too lean,” she says. “Remember, it takes a village to do this work well.”

Other Pro Tips from Industry Leaders

Cross-training is a great way to fill the gaps when someone is out, even if just temporarily. Derek Graham, a school transportation consultant and former state transportation director for North Carolina, recommends having someone in Position A who knows about Position B and would make a good candidate to fill Position B if ever needed. This person can then be groomed to progress up the career ladder. It’s “a win-win for the district and the employee,” he says.

After all, sometimes the best candidates are already sitting under our noses and just need a nudge or the opportunity to be noticed.

Weber takes cross-training a step further and recommends a “three-deep” knowledge of key roles. “This allows a careful process and selection committee without panic,” she explains. “Collaborate with the outgoing leader for reflection and recommendations; however, be careful not to let them ‘choose their replacement.’ Spend time sharing processes, compliance, resources, and tools, steps in policy for processes, meeting with interested candidates with the same rubric of questions.”

Jerry L. Williams, retired transportation director in Jasper County, Ga., reminds of the importance of identifying candidates who believe in the mission of the position and feel passionate about supporting children, education, and the role of the yellow bus. “It has to be a person who doesn’t look down on transportation as a lower class of employees,” he notes.

“Find the right person and the rest will take care of itself,” Cohn says. However, he advises to not settle for the next person up. “Be sure to explore all of your options for candidates because longevity in the workplace is only one small facet of finding a successor.”

Special Industry Considerations

Graham notes that cross-training can be a challenge for transportation staff as departments are usually lean, roles are specialized, and time is in short supply. “Finding the time for a training session is not too hard,” he says, but “what is difficult is finding the opportunity to put that training into practice — setting aside your normal duties to practice doing someone else’s job. However, without practice, it is hard to step in when needed.”

Cohn adds that directors will need to deal with many factors in replacing staff, including impact on and communication with the public (parents), students, other support staff and drivers, as well as upgrading technology and equipment.

Weber also reminds that a large part of a school’s workforce do it because it is part time, and can be a second career for retirees. “It is so important to continue to fuel student transportation organizations and opportunities to our young people in an effort to grow our own leaders,” she says. “Get the word out to qualified candidates for growth so that they know there is more than just the work behind the wheel. One challenge is the long days that come with this work or split schedule … we can’t sugar coat the reality. This will allow our true leaders with a passion for this work to rise.”

Final recommendations from leaders include knowing when to step back and get out of the way, listening and building trust and support, knowing when less is more, and the value of leading by example.

And when in doubt, talk to other schools that have gone through changes in leadership and ask how they did it or what they would do differently. “It’s pretty easy to learn from the mistakes of others if you simply take the time to understand,” Christensen says.

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