Strategic succession management, so important in the business world, is also critical within government agencies and other nonprofit organizations. Sponsored research projects through the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) are addressing these key issues and making a lasting impact on state government and beyond.

“For some citizens, government agencies provide their only access to life sustaining services. A weak leadership bench — one that is not populated with a pool of trained, prepared employees — negatively impacts the continuity of operations and services,” said Leisha LaRiviere, associate director of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) in Richmond. “So building and sustaining a strong leadership bench is imperative.” 

In the past three-and-a-half years, LaRiviere has garnered, and serves as principal investigator on, more than $4 million in sponsored research grants that focus on strategic succession management and employee engagement in organizational planning. Her research portfolio enabled the development and building of the new Richmond academic campus and continues to sustain it. 

Among LaRiviere’s sponsored research programs, which have engaged with more than 2,036 participants to date, are international associations, multiuniversity consortiums, nonprofits, state agencies, and the governor’s office. Recently enacted legislation, Chapter 1289 of the 2020 Acts of Assembly, included additional funding provided by the Governor of Virginia and the Virginia General Assembly. 

Three primary sponsored research studies have focused on longitudinal analysis of leadership training and development approaches, targeted recruitment processes, and employee-centric strategic planning. 

Retirement vulnerability is one of the big problems in state agencies, said LaRiviere. One recruitment study showed that this vulnerability, calculated by the percentage of employees eligible to retire within a five-year period, ranged from 18 to 82 percent, meaning that whole swaths of the workforce depart and leave the organization at risk.

To help address this issue and strengthen the commonwealth’s management and leadership bench, the School of Public and International Affairs developed the Virginia Management Fellows Program in partnership with the governor, the secretary of finance, and state agencies in the Commonwealth of Virginia. LaRiviere directs the two-year fellowship, which is a salaried position where Fellows rotate to three agencies with agency mentors and participate in technical seminars and leadership training. 

“Our commonwealth is fortunate to have the most talented and dedicated state workforce in the country, and the Virginia Management Fellows are how we build a robust pipeline of government leaders to ensure that legacy continues,” said Gov. Ralph Northam. “Leisha LaRiviere has truly been the architect of this unique training partnership between the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and under her leadership, it has seen tremendous growth and success. With innovative coursework, quality mentoring, and outstanding faculty, this program is a smart investment for Virginia that is going to pay dividends for decades to come.”

Virginia Public Sector Leader participants and LaRiviere. *Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of Leisha LaRiviere.

Leisha LaRiviere stands at the head of a table smiling at a camera while a student seated to her right is also smiling.
Virginia Public Sector Leader participants and LaRiviere. *Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of Upfilmworks.

As sponsored funding has grown in scope, scale, and complexity in Richmond, LaRiviere has assembled a robust multidisciplinary research community where her team of five permanent faculty and staff and student scholars are embedded in the community. They work with state agencies and nonprofits to address a myriad of concepts and approaches across the employment continuum while partnering with university faculty in Blacksburg from the Center for Public Administration and Policy, the Pamplin Leadership Academy in the Pamplin College of Business, and the Virginia Tech Department of Human Resources.

One example is a sponsored research project led by LaRiviere on behalf of a mega-state agency, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, to involve a greater number — 1,400 of 6,000 members — of organizational employees and stakeholders in the ground stage of developing the agency’s strategic plan. A critical element of the planning process was the proposal for integrating the plan through systemic and systematic training about the goals, objectives, measure, and metrics. 

“We understand that one size does not fit all when it comes to strategic succession management. Each set of organizational needs and employees is different. We begin all of our work with a gap analysis to determine the agency’s current state and look between now and the optimal future state. Digging into agency artifacts, interviewing agency employees at all levels, and exploring best practices are all parts of our first phase in designing and developing a program,” LaRiviere said.

SPIA Richmond also provides training for managers, emerging leaders, and agency executives through three levels of the Virginia Public Sector Leadership  development certificate program. The levels share the same five core components or “pillars” — examining such topics as appreciative leadership, decision-making architecture, and project management scoping — but are addressed through different approaches based on participants’ professional experience. The program curriculum includes self-directed readings, seminars/lectures, individual presentations, and small-group collaboration. Specific agency issues and agency documents are frequently used as part of the program goal, adding relevance to the learning partner agency.

Virginia Management Fellows meet with Richmond Public Schools, Huguenot High Principal Robert Gilsrap, for a potential partnership. *Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of Leisha LaRiviere.

Several young adults pose in a classroom around a banner that reads "Virginia Management Fellows"
Virginia Management Fellows meet with Richmond Public Schools, Huguenot High Principal Robert Gilsrap, for a potential partnership. *Photo taken prior to COVID-19 and courtesy of SPIA Richmond.

LaRiviere, who also serves as director of strategic planning on the College of Architecture and Urban Studies executive committee, said she shares credit for SPIA Richmond’s research capacity and academic growth with her colleagues, some of whom, like Joe Rees, also served as a mentor while she was a graduate student.

“Leisha and her colleagues at the SPIA Richmond campus have established an impressive track record in securing outside funding for research and conducting leadership training programs in the state capital. SPIA has benefited substantially from their work,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs. 

SPIA Richmond’s commitment to the university community also includes investing $1.1 million in faculty research and graduate education. Since 2018, 13 faculty, six master’s students, and four Ph.D. students have received research funding, stipends, tuition, and wages, sometimes with support over multiple years. 

In addition to their work within the commonwealth, the SPIA Richmond team is currently engaged in strategic succession planning with international agencies, including a nongovernmental organization in Virginia and a university consortium in Mexico. They also developed a targeted training and consultation program for sponsored work with the executive team of an international nonprofit, the American Research Center in Egypt. 

--Written by Barbara Micale

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