As the average age of the Australian workforce increases, organisations are rethinking their succession planning. Here’s how the ATO is doing it.
With a workforce of more than 20,000 employees in 36 locations, the ATO is one of the largest public service employers in Australia. Combine this with an aging workforce – 29 per cent of employees are 50-64 – and you can see a real risk of valuable knowledge being lost as long-serving staff members leave.
With at least 5,800 employees nearing retirement, the ATO needed a succession plan that was based on standardisation and fostered a proactive approach to identifying candidates for leadership roles. No easy task in such a big organisation, but that’s what makes it all the more important.
Given the size of the workforce, quickly rolling out such a plan to the entire organisation could impact its effectiveness in individual departments. In the end it was a business partner who inspired the idea of doing a pilot project with the Enterprise Solutions and Technology (EST) department.
Katherine Robinson CPHR jumped on the idea. She saw this is as an opportunity to secure stakeholder buy-in and make a real difference, and took the reins for succession planning in the EST area.
“Managers had a good idea of who their critical people were likely to be,” says Robinson. “But the idea of the project was to add an HR management lens and support managers to take it a few steps further by giving them a framework to connect the dots between organisational and business-specific strategic objectives and priorities.”
With her roots in the study of science, Robinson had a unique background to bring to the table. She is a strategic forward thinker who is eager to learn on the job every day. After working in a number of different roles for the ATO, Robinson moved into a governance role in the ATO’s HR function and is now HR advisor in the People Support Team. It’s here that she has found her calling. As she was participating in the AHRI Practising Certification program (APC), she made the introduction of the framework her six-month practical workplace capstone project.
Succession planning did exist within departments in the ATO, but there were no endorsed materials or tools that all managers in the business could call on as a guide. But this was needed for the sake of ongoing consistency and risk identification. On the back of this need, the goal of the project was to develop a framework that would support EST managers and allow them to take ownership of their risks and maintain their plans in the long term.
An advocate of equal opportunity, Robinson also ensured the framework made use of Compass, the ATO’s performance management system, to identify potential successors through a single lens, and thus allow everyone in the organisation the chance to show their readiness for career advancement.
The EST area is a large group. At the time, it had 4,253 workers, 1,847 of whom were internal employees and the rest were external staff. So naturally, challenges and roadblocks appeared along the way. One was the limited hours in the day. Business stakeholders had competing priorities, which meant Robinson’s requests fell down their to-do lists. To overcome this, deadlines were written down in meetings, follow-ups were scheduled and adhered to, and Robinson made sure the project stayed on the radar of higher-ups every week.
Another challenge for Robinson was that she wasn’t the only person to identify the need to build capability and succession planning in the ATO. “I think succession planning is becoming a hot topic for a number of reasons, including changing career expectations,” she says. “And for the ATO at least, we have many areas that rely on specialist technical skills or knowledge.”
While it was good everyone had similar thoughts, different teams going off and enacting different projects naturally leads to a lack of cohesion and sustainability. Robinson tackled this challenge head-on, using it as a way to enhance her own project through collaboration. She says she combined forces with her colleague Wendy Wan-Colombi to develop a robust succession planning framework that can be applied at a range of levels.
Their partnership continues to this day. They have been working together to further consult with ATO People and refine the framework.
Today Robinson is working towards long-term goals, such as a general version of the framework being published to My Employment – the ATO corporate HRM information platform. She would also like to present to the EST as a part of the Practical People Management L&D program. It’s clear that for Robinson, this is a passion project. Although she has been awarded the certification she set out to achieve, there is no hint of her slowing down just yet.
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