International Journal of Academic Medicine

: 2019  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 71--74

Academic succession planning: A US perspective

Thomas J Papadimos 
 Department of Anesthesiology, The University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences, Toledo, Ohio, USA

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Thomas J Papadimos
Department of Anesthesiology, University of Toledo College of Medicine and The Life Sciences, 3000 Arlington Avenue Toledo, Ohio 43614


Succession planning for the replacement of vacant academic leadership positions is of paramount importance. It permits organized and minimally disruptive changes during times of transition. Interim chairs have become more common because of increasingly high chair turnover rates and the declining tenure of sitting chairs. In the U.S. nearly 66% of new chairs come from the department of the home institution. Therefore, training faculty members within the department who have the desirable attributes required to be strong leaders will be of assistance to an institution during the turbulent times created by transitions. An emphasis should be placed on the importance of the development of interim chairs as leaders. The following core competencies are addressed in this article: Systems-based practice, Interpersonal and communication skills, and Professionalism.

How to cite this article:
Papadimos TJ. Academic succession planning: A US perspective.Int J Acad Med 2019;5:71-74

How to cite this URL:
Papadimos TJ. Academic succession planning: A US perspective. Int J Acad Med [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Oct 2 ];5:71-74
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Succession planning for the replacement of vacant academic leadership positions is of paramount importance because it permits organized and minimally disruptive changes during times of transition. Succession planning refers to a process that helps organizations to promote cohesion and stability during modification of the leadership structure.[1] It allows an institution to remain dynamic and productive and to quickly recover from change.[2] Leadership transition can be difficult, especially when it occurs suddenly (death, retirement, incarceration, etc.).[3] Here, the value of looking for talented individuals in a department who can be developed into future leaders is highlighted. The importance of grooming leaders, especially interim chairs, cannot be overstated. Training faculty members within the department who have the desirable attributes required to be strong leaders will be of assistance to an institution during the turbulent times created by transitions. Further, the importance of the dean and the chair's relationship, as well as the importance of the search committee, is also addressed.


Succession planning is important because it (1) decreases costs of recruitments and orientations; (2) allows more order during leadership changes; (3) decreases time to fill openings; (4) allows an organization to remain productive; (5) allows for development of leadership competencies called for by temporal, technological, economic, and social forces; and (6) is a rational approach by promoting efficient organizational evolution.[4]

There are over 2000 US medical school department chairs, and the ability to retain first-time chairs in basic and clinical departments is in decline (median time of a chair assignment is now 8.4 years in basic science and 7.9 years in clinical departments).[5],[6] Since 1990, the 5-year retention rate of chairs has been approximately 70%.[3],[5] This is a concern in these times of increased regulation, decreased reimbursement, and decreased research funding.[5] Succession planning permits organized and minimally disruptive leadership changes.

In a 29-year retrospective review of chair recruits and retention, Rayburn et al. reported the appointment of 5317 first-time chairs.[6] They indicated that shorter chair tenure started in the 1990s and that interim chairs now serve 1–8 years.[6] Unfortunately, interim chairs have become more common subsequent to high chair turnover rates.[5] Two-thirds of new chairs in the US come from within the department; most medical schools have several interim department chairs at any time.[5] The high rates of attrition require adept interim leaders. Therefore, it is important that a senior leader be assigned as a coach to interim chairs.[6] Furthermore, being an interim chair is a great opportunity for women and other minorities, and institutional leaders should not lose sight of providing such career-enhancing opportunities to these populations.

Talent development is important.[7],[8] Human resource departments are now becoming departments of talent management, highlighting the need for succession planning [Figure 1]. This is important because promotions from inside the organization (as opposed to outside recruits) allow better economic return and organizational performance. A survey of US hospital chief executives in 2012, compared with responses from 2007, identified a meaningful increase in positive perceptions in the importance of a smooth leadership transition.[9]{Figure 1}

Two instructive examples that differ from the American academic medicine perspective are Canada and the military.[5] Canadian medical schools have instituted fixed term limits on chairs, this is not so in the US. Even though fixed terms would seem to lead to smoother transitions, a fixed term would still require a need for succession planning. The success of the Canadian experience has been variable because they may lose a number of chairs all at once. On the other hand, from the military perspective, their organizational structure is quite different and has certain advantages.[10] The military requires immediate replacement of a lost leader. They develop long-term plans for identifying leaders by developing a list of qualified officers and assigning them to billets that allow and encourage the development of skill sets, thereby providing a high probability at finding suitable replacements. A built-in disadvantage for academic medical institutions is that they cannot make faculty commit to a defined period of service, i.e., they are not required to stay in a position for a particular length of time (as required by the military).

Developing internal candidates requires bench strength.[11] Grooming a bench is important.[5] Chairs can develop candidates by providing leadership opportunities to those deemed qualified to assume such duties; these designees will be extremely helpful during transitions. Institutions that place value on faculty development and opportunities for advancement perform better during transitions. A qualified internal candidate will facilitate a smoother transition and save on recruiting costs. Annual evaluations are important for tracking, mentoring, and identifying faculty members who want to be leaders/chairs. There are critical attributes [Table 1] and other key abilities [Table 2] required for success. These desired characteristics should be addressed during annual evaluations to assist chairs in identifying personnel who meet leadership expectations. Again, do not overlook the fact that mentorship of women and other minorities should be a priority.[12]{Table 1}{Table 2}

When chairs meet with the dean for their annual evaluation, in addition to their personal performance review and a discussion of departmental strengths, deficiencies, and risks, they should also address nonemergency succession planning, as well as the topic of qualified individuals who would make good interim chairs.[3],[5] It is important to understand a dean's perception and expectations regarding leadership transitions.[13] Many deans require succession planning by their chairs and enter it as a requirement in offer letters, i.e., deans want a plan for identification of a replacement (in case of an emergency) assigned in advance. Chairs must always be aware of their own inherent area of weakness (and blind spots) so that their conversations with the dean will be productive. Encounters that highlight differences of opinion should not result in negative interactions.

The dean must be the one to open any conversations regarding a chair's performance and sustainability. Addressing a poor evaluation/performance of a chair is a requisite. However, the dean must always be aware of family concerns, health problems, and any other problems that can be addressed which have contributed to a poor evaluation. If a chair is to be replaced, it is imperative that the chair search and the transition management be transparent. For the sake of department stability, it would be ideal if such an announcement occurred 6–12 months in advance of the chair's departure.[5] A chair that is not facing removal for cause should remain on the job until a new chair has arrived and is in place.

Search committees are important.[14],[15],[16] It is vital that a search committee appreciates the fact that a chair candidate who does not understand the department's mission and place in the organization is a detriment to the future of that department. In the same vein, the search committee must also have those same understandings before starting the search for a replacement. In addition, department faculty should be consulted by the committee as to their desired attributes in a chair, what goals should be defined or addressed by chair candidates, and acknowledge any transition concerns. However, the final arbiter is the dean. Furthermore, any chair that departs or is relieved of duties should respect the incoming chair's position by not participating in any decision-making and be supportive of the transition.


Grooming candidates for selection as a future chair or interim chair is crucial. Moreover, the process of choosing a chair or interim chair must be transparent. Remember, appointing an interim chair is a great training opportunity for ensuring diversity. Always plan carefully and select critically to ensure stability and productivity of the department undergoing transition.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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