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Farmington's HRP Associates spotlights succession-planning challenges

BY Gregory Seay

3/11/2019
Photo | Contributed
Photo | Contributed
HRP Associates Inc. executives Tad A. Goetcheus (left), president/chief operations officer, and CEO Daniel D. Titus, have led or been involved in multiple leadership-succession changes at the Farmington environmental-services provider.

Tips for grooming future leaders

One of the best ways for companies to succession plan is to groom future leaders from within the organization. Staffing agency Robert Half Management Resources recently published several important steps companies should take to identify and develop future leaders. 


1. Be proactive with succession planning


It can take time to find and prepare a promising candidate for a leadership role. Even if you don’t think you’ll need a replacement in the near future, prepping someone to assume an important role creates an invaluable safety net.


2. Keep an open mind


While the obvious successor may be the second in command, don’t disregard other promising employees. Look for people who best display the skills necessary to thrive in higher positions, regardless of their current title.


3. Make the vision known


Include potential managers in strategy conversations to help them acquire planning and leadership skills, as well as a broad vision of the organization and its objectives. Consider sharing your succession planning with human resources and your board of directors.


4. Offer regular feedback to protégés


When someone uses well-honed presentation skills or outperforms on a project, make note of it. Keep track of these achievements in a top-performer file so you have something to reference the next time a management position opens. 


5. Provide training to peak performers


As you identify your top performers, offer mentoring relationships, job shadowing and training, which are true articles of value to help them develop new skills and refine existing ones. Remember that good leaders not only need technical acumen but also strong interpersonal skills, including standout verbal and written communication abilities, as well as tact and diplomacy.


6. Do a trial run of your succession plan


A vacation is a great time to have a potential successor step in to assume some responsibilities. The employee will gain experience while you learn how prepared the person is to take on a bigger role.


7. Use your plan to develop a hiring strategy


Once you’ve identified internal employees as successors for key roles in your organization, take note of any talent gaps. In this way, the succession-planning process can help you identify where to focus your recruiting efforts.

Daniel Titus and Tad Goetcheus have witnessed four leadership successions at HRP Associates Inc., the closely held Farmington environmental engineering services firm where they have each worked for several decades.

But that has not made it any easier to undergo leadership changes, both men say. The latest transition occurred last fall at the 37-year-old firm, elevating Titus to chief executive officer, and Goetcheus to president and chief operating officer. Both are now among HRPs' 12 partner-stockholders.

"We knew three-to-four years ago this was where we were going,'' Titus said recently.

HRP is one of many U.S. corporations and small businesses that began 2019 with new leadership as part of the continued graying of America's workforce. The bulk of the country's 75 million or so Baby Boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — are now at or entering retirement age and eager for a leisurely pace in their "golden years.''

As their attentions turn elsewhere, companies helmed by Boomers must identify and develop a new generation of "C-suite" leadership. Often, they come from inside a company, whether it be a relative, valued employee, or talented outsider brought in to take the reins.

Also, in many instances, particularly among small and family owned businesses, companies' top brass are also owners who may choose to simply sell their firms rather than look for new leadership.

For example, Westport's Resnick Investment Advisors recently announced it was merging with West Hartford-based independent registered investment advisory firm GYL Financial Synergies.

The firms said the merger is part of a "long-term succession plan" for Resnick Investment Advisors, which was founded by Marty Resnick in 1990.

Regardless of the strategy, there are a number of succession challenges that must be overcome, experts say.

Coming to the succession starting line unprepared often is a major hurdle for businesses, especially family run enterprises. A 2015 study by West Hartford accounting and consulting firm blumshapiro and its British counterpart, Baker Tilly International, found eight in 10 family businesses were unprepared for when current company leaders step aside.

According to Harvard Business Review, a 2010 study by search firm Heidrick & Struggles and Stanford University found fewer than half of America's corporate boards had identified a CEO successor, and just over one-third lacked viable in-house candidates who could take over at a moment's notice.

Sometimes, even the best-laid succession plans at large companies go awry. One common mistake companies should avoid is going "through a 'replacement planning' rather than 'succession planning,' '' said Amy Allen, a human-resources partner and adviser at blumshapiro.

Replacement planning occurs, said Allen, a 30-year-plus human-resources veteran, when companies look to identify staff prospects in or outside the company who are deemed having the "potential'' to lead down the road. Then, employers mistakenly invest large sums to train and groom those prospects, only to find out later that individuals do not want or are not interested in leading, she said.

"Think of succession planning,'' Allen said, "as building a pool of internal candidates for promotion. The key is you really need to be very good and disciplined about identifying top talent.''

A trio departs

What most distinguished HRP's latest round of leadership succession from other companies' is that several of its top lieutenants stepped aside all at once.

Titus and Goetcheus assumed the duties of three executives — CEO L. Andrew White; Chief Financial Officer Richard D. McFee; and Chief Operating Officer Howard S. Hurd — who each had 30 years at the firm.

A mountain of details went into HRP's past and latest succession schemes, Titus and Goetcheus say, including currying input from lawyers, accountants and other advisers.

Most succession-planning advisers bristle at watching so much talent and institutional memory depart at once, the two men said.

"It's just sort of an odd way of doing it,'' said Titus, 48, of Coventry, who has been with HRP more than 20 years. "A lot of lawyers and accountants would advise against it. But this is the fourth time we've done it.''

About two years ago, HRP's leadership began having quarterly discussions with Titus and Goetcheus about their futures as the company's next leaders.

In 2011, seven years before the latest transition, two of HRP's partners left, triggering an unspecified "financial event'' at the company, executives said. HRP applied much of what it learned through its previous leadership transitions.

For example, HRP officials now realize the value of tapping existing leaders' engineering and client-relationship knowledge and expertise and transferring as much of that as possible to the new leadership crop.

That meant assigning Titus and Goetcheus, 52, a Tolland native and 30-year-plus HRP veteran living in Greer, S.C., near one of HRP's offices, leadership tasks and goals to help them hone those skills early.

The biggest challenge this time around, according to Titus, involved the interpersonal engagement between the exiting leaders, the newcomers and HRP's staff.

"It's a big thing for someone to decide to retire and have a year-long transition,'' he said.

That, he said, poses challenges in handing off decision-making authority from one generation to the next. Another complication arises if, as in HRP's case, the leadership transition also involves a transfer of financial equity between parties.

"If you plan to transfer equity without a sale, don't underestimate the amount of time it takes,'' Titus said.

Goetcheus, who runs HRG's South Carolina office, one of its four in the U.S., agreed, but added his top three recommendations to any enterprise anticipating or undergoing a succession plan.

"Open communication,'' Goetcheus said. "Open communication. Open communication."