by John W. Von Stein

Peer to Peer – How to Groom a Successor

Oct 15, 20056 mins
IT Leadership

Several years ago I was a vice president of IT for the world’s largest privately held commodities and foods company. At that time I was responsible for the agriculture-oriented business units globally. The overall CIO at the time, Lloyd, called to say that our Latin American regional CIO had suddenly retired and that the regional business leaders could not agree on an internal successor. Lloyd wanted me to take over as interim CIO and try to make peace with the business leaders in the region. He also tasked me to hire a regional CIO from the local market.

Lloyd said he expected it to take about three months to hire the new manager and another three months or so for me to properly bring the new hire onboard. Little did I know what I was really in for. In the end, my “temporary” assignment took about two and a half years. And during my stint, I learned many lessons about how to get warring staff to settle their differences and work together and how to groom internal leaders—all while settling into a new country and culture.

The Warring Camps

The Latin American region consists of about 25 business units spread across 16 countries. At the time the business units employed about 17,000 people and generated about $8 billion in revenue. At its peak there were about 600 IT staff in the region, largely concentrated in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Venezuela. The Argentine operation was one of the first and, in the beginning, was the largest base of business for the company in Latin America. Over time, due mostly to the vast size and large population, Brazil overtook Argentina in both the number of business units and the total amount of business generated from the region. In spite of this, much of the company’s internal political power in Latin America either resided in Argentina or with Argentine expatriates working elsewhere in the region. There was tension between the Argentine and Brazilian seats of power, which was like gasoline on the fire of the historical rivalry that has existed between these two countries for centuries.

At my first meeting in October 2001 with business managers from the region at a senior officers’ meeting in Minneapolis, many issues surfaced, including the lack of overall cost-effectiveness of IT, what to do about a very large-scale ERP implementation project that was struggling for survival and the inability of local business leaders to agree on an internal successor. However, they did agree that they were all generally unhappy with the fact that an American (me) was being forced upon them in this situation. I tried to alleviate the tension by stating that I was just trying to help and was indifferent to the outcome—so long as we achieved our goals. This helped focus everyone on the task rather than competing for my support of one political camp or another. By the end of the meeting we all agreed to work together, and the tension in the air started to dissipate. Phew!

My first task was to learn about the countries, cultures and quality of the people in our Latin American operations. I began taking intensive Berlitz classes to learn Spanish. And I prompted many people in Latin America to learn English so that they would feel more connected to me and to the company overall. Over time I gained trust, respect and admiration for my Latin American colleagues, and earned their trust as well. By February 2002 we were in full recruitment mode and were starting to see some interesting r¿m¿

I also began to assess the internal candidates, two of whom proved to be very capable indeed. Jos¿rom Brazil and Sergio from Argentina each had winning traits but needed to hone some skills and round out their experience. In the past, the regional CIO had been named from outside the region’s IT group. But the staff was more loyal to their long-term, locally grown, first-line managers than to “implanted” regional CIOs like me or my predecessor. My head told me to follow the plan, hire someone from the outside and get out of Latin America ASAP. However, my gut told me to stay on the job a little longer and groom both internal candidates for the job. So I recommended that we suspend the external search for a year and that I stay on and concentrate on grooming the internal candidates. With mixed emotions I thanked everyone for their continued support of “The Gringo” as I was affectionately becoming known in the region.

As it turned out, I needed their support for an additional two years. That’s how long it took to groom the two internal candidates. Jos¿as the infrastructure manager in the region, but he was mostly known only in his native Brazil. He had strong project management skills, was innovative, and was fluent in Spanish and English in addition to his native Portuguese. However, he did not have much experience with creating a long-term vision. Sergio was a well-known IT manager for the largest business unit in Argentina. Sergio could easily switch between visionary, long-term thinking and short term, tactical thinking, but he had an edge that needed to be polished. I created a regional relationship manager role (liaison between the various business units and the regional IT shared service) for Jos¿and promoted Sergio from his business-unit IT manager role into the regional infrastructure manager role. This allowed each person to get the most professional development in the least amount of time. Both Jos¿nd Sergio started executive MBA programs, and we had many one-on-one mentoring sessions. The regional business leaders and I decided to officially end the external candidate search and stay the course with Jos¿nd Sergio.

Another year or so passed, and in February 2004 I was recruited for the executive VP and CIO role at The Options Clearing Corp. in Chicago. My two Latin American prot¿s were ready, so the timing was good for all.

And the Winner Is…

Eventually, I recommended that, although either could be successful, Jos¿as better prepared overall and had a better chance at long-term success as the regional CIO. This recommendation was based on Jos¿8217;s ability to communicate effectively at all levels, from IT to the business as well as from the region to headquarters. By now, with the apparent success of the IT turnaround in the region, the animosity and intra-regional rivalry had substantially subsided and essentially was a nonfactor in the final decision making.

It has been about two years since Jos¿as named the regional CIO. Jos¿his wife and their two young children have relocated to Minneapolis so that he can operate out of the company’s U.S. headquarters. He is doing just fine in his role. Sergio has a great attitude and is still performing very well in his role as the regional infrastructure manager. In keeping with the faith, they both are grooming other managers in the region for future growth. Their leadership and management strength has also raised the visibility and credibility that the Latin American region has within the company overall.