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Succession Management: A Structured Approach

Let’s say you are an employee at Dunbar Armored Inc., and you receive a stellar performance evaluation. At many companies, this might earn you a nice raise, or a bonus, or perhaps just a pat on the back. But at Dunbar, you could be designated a “rising star”—which opens a door into a world of career opportunities.

Under the company’s new succession management system, Dunbar rising stars help design their own career development programs, based on their professional interests and strengths. And through the use of new aptitude assessment tools, stars are matched up with positions that fit their abilities, so when a position comes open, they might be next in line for the job. 

Founded in 1956 as a small, family-owned regional firm specializing in armored cars, Dunbar now leads a national workforce of roughly 5,000 employees—more than 3,000 work as driver-guards—with 80 branch locations and operations in 42 states. This growth has also raised the stature and awareness of the Dunbar name, and some employees have used their experience at the company to successfully switch to a related career, such as police work. This factor contributes to the company’s turnover rate—about 60 percent every two years—which makes for many open slots to fill.

From its founding, the “bedrock of the culture” at Dunbar has been the company’s promote-from-within philosophy, according to Steven Silverman, vice president of organizational development. For years, managers have been tasked with designating rising stars for advancement along specific career paths. But as the company grew nationally, succession management became more and more unwieldy. Managers looking to fill an opening in San Francisco might be unaware of a great candidate in Baltimore. “There would be a lot of paper, and a lot of things falling through the cracks,” Silverman says. Without quantifiable personnel metrics, intuition and gut instinct could play an outsized role in hiring decisions, and a promoted employee may not be quite ready for the next step.

So a few years ago, Dunbar’s executive committee decided the company needed to bring its promote-from-within succession management system into the 21st century. Executives wanted a system that would not only better use technology, but also take a broader approach and contextualize succession within the larger universe of talent management. Gregory Schaub, director of financial systems, conceptualizes it this way: “If you are climbing up the mountain of talent, succession sits on the top of it, and it builds on a lot of other information you capture within the talent system.”

In addition, Dunbar executives wanted the new system to be proactive, so that strong candidates would be lined up for positions before jobs became open. They wanted the system to offer more training programs that were custom-tailored to the needs and goals of individual employees. They wanted the system to break down silos, so that employees could move easily from position to position and department to department within the firm. But they did not want the new system to be a budget-buster. “In the security industry, you need to be keenly aware of costs because the business has fairly tight margins,” Schaub says.

The company decided to use the human capital management system Workday, based in Pleasanton, California, which provides enterprise cloud applications for various HR functions. Workday mines and analyzes data from performance reviews, employee profiles, assessment tests, and other organizational systems.


The basic building block of Dunbar’s new succession management system is the company’s longstanding practice of identifying employees with strong promotion potential. After a performance evaluation is completed and signed by both employee and manager, the manager rates the employee in one of three categories: rising star, middle star, or falling star. To be a rising star, the employee must achieve at least an aggregate score of four out of five on the performance sections of the evaluation, Silverman says. But beyond strong current performance, rising stars must also demonstrate future potential.

“You may be the world’s greatest ‘insert your position here,’ but if I don’t think you will be a leader, you might not be a rising star,” Silverman says. The most recent metrics for the program indicated that 15 percent of employees were categorized as “rising,” 65 percent as “middle,” and 20 percent as “falling.”

A manager’s designation of a rising star employee, however, is only considered a nomination. Rising star nominees are then asked to complete a talent profile and résumé, which are fed into Workday. The profile includes information on willingness to relocate, leadership experience, specialized skills, and future goals. The manager discusses the nomination with the regional vice president; if it survives, it goes to the senior vice president of operations for the final decision.

Besides the star rating, managers also rate each employee on the degree to which they are a “flight risk.” This rating indicates whether the employee is likely to stay with the company and the degree to which the loss would affect the company. The flight risk rating gives the company an early opportunity to showcase its offerings to promising employees who may be on the fence about staying. For example, a rising star who has tentative aspirations to pursue a law enforcement career might be open to staying with Dunbar once they hear of potential career opportunities.

Once a rising star nomination is approved, the employee and manager work together to design a custom-tailored career development program, which takes into account the career goals of the employee and needs of the company. Such a program may include classes and training seminars, mentoring sessions, and on-the-job exposure to higher positions.

Options for classes and training sessions are numerous and increasing, as the firm now offers more than 100 online courses through a system it calls “Dunbar University.” The courses are designed by designated in-house subject matter experts and administered by a learning management software system called Moodle, which is a product of the Australia-based Moodle Pty Ltd. Content ranges from safety seminars to task-specific training modules to broader professional topics, such as classes on leadership. “We’re adding to those on a daily basis,” says Dominick Valencia, executive vice president of human resources and general counsel. Course grades and completion dates are added to the employee’s talent profile in Workday.

Moving forward, executives are exploring the possibility of offering some college-credit courses for employees working on a degree. And Dunbar University will also be used to help the company in areas outside of career development, says Sean Gibbons, vice president of communications and public relations. For example, some courses may be tailored for drivers who have had accidents or received driving complaints. Executives hope that through this type of rapid remedial response, Dunbar will decrease the number of future violations, accidents, and worker’s compensation claims.


Once an employee’s customized training program is completed, “you are basically checked off as ready,” Silverman says. At that point, another aspect of the system kicks in—matching rising stars with specific openings, on a proactive basis, so applicants are ready when jobs are vacated. 

Dunbar designates certain key positions within the organization as critical, and then creates a succession plan for each one. It does this by tagging employees who, based on their talent profiles, would be a good fit for the position. All critical positions have a succession plan, even if the current occupant does not expect to leave the company.

In addition, Dunbar is adding a new universe of data to the process of matching employees with positions: results from assessment tests administered through PeopleAnswers employee assessment software. Started in 2001, PeopleAnswers is a talent science company that leverages big data with predictive analytics and the behavioral sciences. Dunbar executives describe the system as somewhat similar to the assessment process used by dating sites such as eHarmony. But instead of using the assessments to match compatible lovers, PeopleAnswers uses assessment data to match up an employee with their ideal position, based on their aptitudes and behavioral traits. “We help them make better decisions on people,” says Brandon DeCaro, business development executive for PeopleAnswers.

The tests, which Dunbar employees started taking in January, assess 39 traits in three categories—behavioral, cognitive, and cultural. The assessment test data is married with performance metrics that Dunbar is continually collecting; the metrics show which employees are top performers and which are underperforming.

When data is crunched, trends emerge, in terms of the common trait scores of the highest performers for each position at Dunbar. Generally, five behavioral areas or traits emerge as the clearest predictors of performance because separation between employees in those areas is significant, DeCaro says. To give a hypothetical example, in the area of Ambition on a scale of 1 to 7, the highest performers may cluster around the 5 level because getting a higher score in this category isn’t always good. Employees who score a 7 on the Ambition scale may be so ambitious they disregard their managers, which hurts their overall performance. 

Through this data, profiles of top performers at each position at Dunbar can be constructed. “We let the data drive the profile,” DeCaro says. This can be valuable when building a succession plan for critical positions; if the highest-performing branch managers tend to have high scores on certain traits, then Dunbar can look for employees who match that profile and tag them as potential future branch managers. 

The assessment data can be used toward other purposes as well. An assessment test can be part of the application process for new employees, to see if their profile resembles that of the company’s strong performers. Assessment data can also be used to help underperformers as it gives a manager insight into the specific behavioral areas where a “falling star” may fall short.

The information can also be used in designing career development programs; if a promising employee aspires to be promoted to a certain position, the manager can let him or her know what attributes are common among those who perform well in that position, and a training program can be formulated with that in mind.


While Dunbar’s system is still fairly new, initial feedback has been positive, and employee engagement is up, executives say. “The promote-from-within philosophy has always been there. Now we feel like we’re getting traction and structure on the philosophy,” says Valencia. Executives say the program’s positive effects are evident in a few different ways.

First, employee engagement is on the rise. “Just from the number of internal candidates who recently have applied for positions—that number has picked up substantially,” Schaub says. Although it’s likely that other factors are helping to drive this increase, the new system seems to be a key factor, Schaub adds.

From management’s point of view, the new system has reduced the amount of uncertainty that goes into promotion decisions and given those doing the hiring more confidence that they are making the right choice. “With this quantitative process, I am comfortable that when we say to someone, ‘you’re ready to go,’ that they’re ready to go. As opposed to, ‘you know, I think you would do okay with this, let’s see what happens,’” Silverman says.

And for employees, the new system provides much more clarity and guidance on how to take advantage of Dunbar’s longstanding promote-from-within philosophy, executives say.

“We always say ‘Promotion from within; promotion from within.’ But before, I think, people were always thinking, ‘How do I get to be in the position so that I am the person who is promoted from within?’ Now, there’s a formal process for it,” Silverman says.