An Introduction to Succession Planning for Local Government

Joe Lonsdale, an American entrepreneur and managing partner of a prestigious multi-billion-dollar venture capital firm, once remarked, “Good government is vital for economic growth and societal well-being.” But what defines a “good” government? Key indicators include stability, consistency, reliability, and trustworthiness, all hallmarks of a government bolstered by effective succession planning. With such planning, leadership transitions are smooth, regardless of which candidate or party is in power, and continuous talent development is in place for roles beyond elected positions, such as departmental staff. This ensures that qualified internal candidates are always on standby and ready to fill pivotal roles. Effective succession planning ensures that future leaders are well-prepared, bringing stability and clarity for what lies ahead. This makes succession planning an indispensable strategic tool for any organization, whether for-profit, not-for-profit, or governmental. In this article, SIGMA’s succession planning specialists delve into the nuances of succession within municipal governments and provide guidance on creating a solid succession strategy for local government leaders.

The State of Succession in Local Governments

The majority of municipalities in the United States and Canada do not have a succession plan. The absence of a succession plan can lead to significant disruption when the time comes for incumbents of key positions to retire or move on. In a study of municipal governments in Canada:1

  • A third of municipalities reported that they expected their top executives to retire in six years or less.
  • Less than 60% identified succession planning as a priority.
  • Only 21% were preparing internal staff to take over from senior executives.
  • Only 18% had a succession plan in place for top executives.
  • Only 11% had a plan in place for all employees.
  • Less than one-third monitored age demographics and used that information to predict retirements.

These figures highlight a shortcoming in both awareness and preparation for succession. Local governments not only lack succession plans, they also lack the data collection process necessary to recognize when the need for succession becomes urgent. Consequently, the current state of succession in municipal governments needs improvement. To help leaders in local government begin the succession planning process, this article outlines a six-step process that can be used to develop a robust succession planning approach. First, let’s look at the distinct challenges municipalities face in succession planning and adapt the plan to tackle those challenges effectively.

Succession Planning Challenges for Local Government

Ask any leader and they will likely say that succession is important. Why then are so few organizations participating in the succession planning process? A few key challenges were mentioned in a Queens University study of 34 Ontario municipalities:2

  • 44% of municipalities stated they were not participating in the succession planning process because they had more pressing organizational challenges that needed to be dealt with.
  • 38% did not have the time to create a succession planning process.
  • 35% did not have the budget to do so.
  • 35% were constrained by the size of the organization.

Note: These challenges are not unique to local government alone. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)  often face similar obstacles related to budget, time, and the size of the organization’s internal talent pool.

Succession Planning for Local Government

Fortunately, there are ways that the succession planning process can be adapted to meet these challenges. Local governments can:

Building a succession planning process from the ground up is a significant undertaking for any organization, regardless of the industry or size. It is also one of the most significant strategic processes a local government will undertake. Use SIGMA’s tips and resources alongside the following six-step succession planning process to cultivate a high-performing and successful team.

The 6-Step Succession Planning Process

SIGMA uses a six-step succession planning process with clients, regardless of their industry or size. Our consultants have worked specifically with municipalities, as well as for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. The following six steps have been consistently proven effective through repeated application and validation. Use these steps to begin drafting a succession plan and click on the links to download form-fillable templates with instructions to document and standardize the plan along the way.

  1. Identify critical roles. Begin by identifying which roles are critical for day-to-day operations. Don’t just think of leadership positions — consider information technology (IT), administrative, or highly specialized positions for which it would be difficult to quickly find or train replacements. Use SIGMA’s Critical Role Identification Questionnaire to get started.

  2. Build success profiles. Once critical roles have been identified, build a success profile for each position. A success profile is a document that outlines the skills and abilities required for success in a particular role. Use the SIGMA Success Profile™ template to structure and standardize success profiles.

  3. Nominate succession candidates. Using success profiles, nominate individuals who show promise as suitable candidates for each critical role. Use SIGMA’s Succession Nomination Survey to organize the list.

  4. Assess development needs. Once candidates have been selected, the next step is to assess development needs. Use a scientifically developed leadership assessment, such as the Leadership Skills Profile – Revised™ (LSP-R),  to create a Candidate Profile for each individual. This will provide a foundation for creating targeted development plans.

  5. Develop talent. After each individual’s development needs have been identified, it’s time to create a development plan. Use SIGMA’s Development Actions Form to create a talent development plan for each succession candidate and set timeframes for short-, medium-, and long-term goals.

  6. Measure progress. Succession planning is a continuous journey. Throughout the process, it’s important to periodically assess progress. We recommend six-month intervals for progress measurement. Use SIGMA’s Talent Progress Scorecard to set and monitor objective indicators of success. This will help identify when the plan needs to be adjusted. It will also lay the groundwork for communicating concrete information about the progress of the succession plan to the board, shareholders, employees, and other stakeholders in the succession planning process.

Looking for More?

For additional resources to support the succession planning process, review SIGMA’s succession planning tools and templates. For further discussions on succession planning solutions, visit our succession planning consulting page or contact us below. SIGMA succession planning specialists are available to discuss unique organizational circumstances and potential succession planning strategies tailored to specific teams.

Talk to an Expert


Glen Harrison is an organizational transformation consultant and leadership assessment expert. Over the course of his career, Glen has worked with one-third of the Fortune 500 list and with every level of government in Canada and the United States. Having worked with numerous clients to build robust succession plans from the ground up, Glen has extensive experience in the application of SIGMA’s products and services to help organizations realize their people potential.

1 – 800 – 401 – 4480 ext. 233

[1] Carson, J. (n.d.). Managing the future: Why some Ontario municipalities are not engaging in succession planning

[2] Ibid.

About the Author

Helen Schroeder

Marketing Coordinator

Helen completed a dual degree with Ivey Business School’s HBA program and Western University’s Honours Specialization in Psychology. As a Marketing Coordinator and Consultant she creates and manages content for SIGMA’s webpages, blogs, and coaching resources. Helen also assists in new product development, go-to-market strategy, and client consultation.