It might very well be a baby boomer problem, or it could be a perennial issue. But with a huge chunk of the nation’s IRB leadership about to retire, now is the time to do succession planning, long-time IRB leaders say.

The IRB world cannot ignore this dilemma as 30%-40% of the workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, says Candice Yekel, MS, associate vice president for research and the director for the office for research protections at The Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

“That’s a staggering number,” Yekel says. “I’m 57, and probably in three to five years, I’ll be ready for retirement.”

A thrown-into-the-deep-end-of-the-pool type of succession is not ideal, notes Charlotte Coley, MACT, CIP, education and training manager in the Office of Human Research Ethics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Both Coley and Yekel spoke about succession planning at the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs (AAHRPP) 2016 Annual Conference, held April 19-21, 2016, in Long Beach, CA.

“Trial by fire doesn’t work very well; everybody ends up being burned,” Coley says. “A lot of offices now are creating a deputy director position, which allows someone to learn at the feet of another person and not be thrown in the deep end.”

Yekel has had succession planning on her mind for some time. Like other IRB leaders in the baby boom generation, Yekel’s career path led her to human subjects research, although it wasn’t an early career choice. “I love it, but in graduate school I would have said, ‘No way,’” she says. “I had not thought to move in that direction.”

A large proportion of IRB leaders have been in this field since the 1980s or 1990s, and now they’re looking ahead to the next transition into retirement, Yekel notes.

There currently is a two-decade gap between this older generation of leaders and the younger group of IRB professionals who moved into the field within the last decade or so as part of a deliberate career track, she adds.

Both Yekel and Coley work in IRB offices that, unlike many IRBs, have attracted younger staff.

“My office is rather young,” Yekel says.

Coley works with a number of IRB professionals in their 20s and 30s. “Living in North Carolina has been a very attractive draw to younger professionals, and it’s given us a [demographic] mix,” Coley says. “At my last IRB job, the average age was 55.”

“It’s a more deliberate decision for people in their 20s and 30s,” Yekel says. “I’ve met several young professionals, and they know early on that this is what they want to do.”

Finding or developing IRB leaders from the ranks of people in their 40s or early 50s might be more of a challenge, they note.

“Since the IRB world started to explode and a lot of young professionals were coming into it, there’s been a gap,” Yekel says. “We have people who are quite senior and looking to transition into retirement.”

Then there are the younger IRB professionals who may not have the years of experience that would be ideal in successors to today’s IRB leadership, she adds.

IRB leaders face several challenges when planning for tomorrow’s leaders: First, they need to attract younger workers to their offices and develop advancement and growth strategies that will retain them; second, they need to groom the most experienced staff to become the next generation of leaders; and third, they need to have an emergency succession plan in the event they have to take off several months or longer at little to no notice. (See story on creating a career track for younger staff in this issue.)

Yekel and Coley offer the following suggestions for succession planning:

Hire people who have leadership skills. New IRB professionals should have a college degree because this at least suggests the job applicant has good writing, critical thinking, analytical, and communication skills, Coley says.

“They need to pay attention to details; a comma in the regulations makes a difference sometimes,” she adds.

“We expect folks in the office to be analysts, to think in a much more scientific way,” Yekel says. “They need to use good judgment, to not be afraid to make a decision, and to enjoy working with people.”

IRB professionals help researchers navigate the complexities of human research, so they need to have refined communication skills and a service mentality, she adds. “And you need to have someone who can handle all of the stress because it is time-driven work.”

Coley compares work in an IRB office to having a job in Grand Central Station on a holiday weekend’s Friday afternoon. “It’s nonstop hectic; people need to think quickly and move fast and not get overwhelmed and depressed by the workload because every IRB has more work than they can handle,” she says.

“I once had an employee who wanted a clean and neat desk and wanted to be able to clear her desk of all open projects each day,” Coley recalls. “But you can’t be in control working in the IRB office; you may have a plan for what you want to do today, but things pop up and you have to go with the biggest bonfire.”

The tidy employee did not last long in the office, but found another job in which having a perpetually clean desk was possible, Coley adds.

Create opportunities for staff to work with other departments. The next step in succession planning is to create opportunities for staff to work with other human research protection program departments and non-IRB individuals, Coley suggests.

“If you could set up an internship where IRB staff would work for one or two days or a week in another office, like the conflict of interest office or ethics office or even the pharmacy service, then they’d have a better understanding of other areas,” she says.

IRB professionals can learn more about human research as they interact with different offices on campus or in a hospital, Coley says.

“They also can develop a relationship with people in these other offices,” she adds. “It takes more than an IRB to have a culture of compliance and get everyone working together.”

Working with other departments also helps staff improve their communication skills and network. For example, Coley had her institution’s conflict of interest office do a presentation for the IRB analysts, giving analysts a chance to meet and talk about what’s going on in each office and where the two offices interact.

“We can identify ways to create synergy between all these different offices,” Coley says.

Groom the best and brightest for future leadership. Grooming or mentoring staff with leadership skills for future positions of authority might resolve one of the problems IRBs have in growing leadership, which is their flat organizational structure, Coley notes.

“With a flat structure, people eventually have to leave your office to get a promotion or move up,” she explains. “Recently, there’s been a lot of effort to create opportunities for professional growth within the IRB offices.”

An IRB director can ask motivated employees with help on special projects or strategic planning and coach them in the new role. While this isn’t the same as a promotion, it does give the professional the opportunity to learn new leadership and organizational skills, Yekel adds.

Prepare for leadership succession emergencies. It’s always possible that a current IRB leader will need to leave on short notice because of a health problem or family emergency, so IRB succession planning should prepare for this contingency as well.

For example, an IRB could create back-up positions and train staff to be able to jump into a leadership role if needed, Coley says.

“Most institutions have a back-up plan in place where if somebody leaves, people take vacations, or if they get sick, there is a back-up for their position,” she says. “Others can step up and fill in or divide up the work until they get back.”

If the person who leaves abruptly is a long-time IRB leader, then the gap could be difficult to fill. It’s best if the IRB leader has an emergency successor — someone who has been trained by the leader to take over some of the leader’s responsibilities, Coley adds.