The pipeline problem at the Postal Service


Photograph: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg

Add yet another problem to the many confronting the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service. Its bench of leaders is growing old.

In a report released Monday, the postal inspector general's office said that 35 percent of postal executives were eligible for retirement as of 2012, and it expects 49 percent will be eligible by 2015. Making matters worse: About 30 percent of the people currently being groomed to succeed them are in a position to retire, too. That number will balloon to 73 percent in the next seven years.

These trends, worrisome as they may be, are not altogether surprising. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show that the Postal Service has among the oldest employees of any industry, tied with funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries at a median employee age of 52.

This "silver tsunami," as the pending wave of retirements has been called, is also a crisis that haunts the federal government at large. A January Government Accountability Office report found that nearly a third of all permanent federal employees will be eligible to retire by 2017. Meanwhile, the Partnership for Public Service released a report last summer stating that nearly two-thirds of senior government executives will be eligible over the next five years.

But for the Postal Service, which faces billions in losses and upheaval in its traditional business model, a strong management bench is that much more critical. Such massive challenges increase the importance not only of good leadership training and succession planning programs, but of creating an overall culture that values talent development, draws young up-and-comers into its ranks, and retains its best people to make sure the pipeline is packed.

The good news, according to the inspector general's report, is that the Postal Service's succession planning program includes a number of key practices, such as getting active support from top leaders. In addition, critical features have been added since 2012 that may not have fully made their mark yet, such as enrolling early career managers and revising the program so that participants are nominated by executives.

Yet the inspector general also found that 17 percent of the succession program's "individual development plan" activities were late in being approved by managers — at least 289 days late, even beyond an extended deadline. As a result, the report said, some of the USPS's best and brightest couldn't get going on the assignments designed to help them build their skills as leaders.

Of course, speeding up approvals will hardly correct a graying leadership roster alone. Still, this recommendation, and others in the report, "reveals a lot about the postal culture," says former Postal Regulatory Commission Chair Dan Blair, now president of the National Academy of Public Administration.

For one, there were no consequences in place for managers who didn't meet the approval deadlines, according to the report. And without repercussions, it can be harder to motivate people to do things that don't have an immediate payoff.

The report also says the main reason the deadlines were missed is that "managers do not make approving [development plans] a priority." In an organization that has been been facing crises for years — the workforce has shrunk substantially, it must contend with obligations to pre-fund costly retiree benefits, and much-needed legislative reform is both outside of management's control and long overdue — it's not surprising that deadlines for an H.R. program might get lost in the shuffle.

Of course, one byproduct of all those soon-to-be retirees could be that the USPS brings in more outsiders. "This gives an opportunity for some fresh blood and new ways of thinking to be brought in," Blair says. While he says a lot of the Postal Service's top people understand the need for change, "having that cascade through the organization is very tough. The organization is not receptive to change, especially in the mid-level ranks and below."

The Postal Service's published response to the report said that it agreed with the inspector general's recommendation, had begun to make changes, and that the issue was a top priority for executives. When asked to comment further on the report and succession planning, Chief Human Resources Officer and Executive Vice President Jeffrey Williamson said in an emailed statement that USPS is "well aware of the pending retirements and devotes considerable resources toward developing a robust pipeline" of future leaders.

Williamson also said, however, that "we disagree with statements that indicate we are not actively and intentionally developing our leadership pipeline" and that approving individuals' activity plans hasn't prevented the organization from developing new leaders.

In the statement, he also noted that Postal Service managers typically stay three to five years beyond retirement eligibility, and identified both leadership training and management internship programs that help it fill its bench with new leaders. As for critiques that the USPS struggles to evolve, Williamson begged to differ. "The Postal Service," he said in the statement, "is known for our ability to respond well to change."

Read also:

Managing a "victimized" workforce after the shutdown

Few bright spots in sad survey of federal workers

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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