by Martha Heller

Succession Planning Dos and Don’ts

Jul 06, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

I am an executive recruiter, and sometime in the next 12 months, I am going to call your top employee and ask her to consider a new job opportunity. She will answer me in one of two ways. Either she will say, “No thank you. My company treats me really well and is grooming me for my next position,” or she’ll tell me the words I love to hear: “I’ve hit a ceiling in my company and would be delighted to talk.”

Which answer she gives me will hinge on the succession planning program you have in place. Without a decent succession plan, your retention rates will suffer as will your own ability to advance in your company. What CEO will move you into a new position if you cannot backfill the CIO spot with someone wonderful?

Running a succession planning program is not easy, and with all of the other responsibilities on your plate, it can sit on the back burner for a long, long time. To give you the inspiration you need to get moving on this critical effort, I’ve enlisted the help of three CIOs who have created a culture of succession in their own organizations and have lessons learned to share from their efforts.

1. Embed succession planning in your reorganization.

In February 2004, insurance company Bristol West Holdings went public, and the board of directors listed enterprise succession planning as a top priority. Jack Ondeck, CIO, did a gap analysis of the skills his direct reports had at the time and those they needed in order to succeed him as CIO.

In addition to providing them the training they needed to tighten the gaps—by giving them more budget responsibility to help build their financial knowledge, for example—he made succession planning a critical factor in his reorganization the following year. “We moved to a federated model so that most of my senior staff has a dotted line to a senior VP who is responsible for a large area like claims, point of sale or product lifecycle,” says Ondeck. “Since my directors are now setting priorities for the entire group, they are essentially running their own IT organization with all of the strategic, leadership and political responsibilities that come along with the role.” Ondeck’s only regret: “I wish I did the reorganization earlier. The new reporting structure makes my direct reports much better at the jobs they have now.”

2. Don’t be too specific about growth opportunities.

When Karin Catton became CIO of manufacturer Johns Manville in 2003, she conducted an employee satisfaction survey in her department; on a scale of one to five, her employees rated their happiness a one. They felt disconnected from the business, without strong leadership and generally dissatisfied. HR had started down the road of succession planning in other areas of the company, so Catton harnessed some of the tools they were using and applied them to IT.

The program she created has her vice presidents, directors, senior managers and managers meeting with their managers on a quarterly basis to learn where they need to focus to move up in the organization. Her advice: “Everyone in the program should know that they are being groomed for a role with a greater span of control, but they should not get too focused on one specific position. If turnover doesn’t happen and that one role doesn’t open up, they will become disgruntled.”

3. Create a succession planning program for technologists.

In addition to developing a program for her senior leaders, Catton also created one for her independent contributors. “Your technologists may not be born managers, but they need a development path as well,” says Catton. “We created a succession path in our architecture group that includes a ‘principal’ level. The principals do not have staff, but they are recognized throughout the company as thought leaders.” Catton’s employees recently upped their satisfaction from a one to a four, which gives her quantifiable evidence that her succession planning efforts are working.

4. Involve the organizational development group early on.

In 2001, Larry Pickett, CIO of Purdue Pharma, joined forces with HR to implement a formal succession planning program that includes job rotation, training, goal setting, feedback and executive coaching. While Pickett has always considered leadership development one of his most critical responsibilities, in 2001, the company was poised for considerable growth, so he decided the timing was right to implement a formal program.

“The organizational team [in HR] really exceeded my expectations,” says Pickett. “They created an innovative executive coaching program that combines the best assessment methodologies from expensive external programs with the involvement of our own executives who work with these leaders every day. We used to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send our high-potential employees to external programs, but now we have an internal program that is better.”

5. Manage expectations.

When Pickett sees the need for a stronger enterprise focus on a particular area, like security, he will pull a manager with expertise in that area from the middle ranks of his organization up into his group of direct reports for an interim period. This gives the topic some additional focus and the employee an opportunity to work more directly with Pickett and to participate in IT leadership meetings. The benefits of this leadership development approach are great, but Pickett offers a caution: “The employees need to know up front that they will be transitioning back into their place in the organization,” he says. “Since this can feel like a demotion, it is critical that they understand that while they will no longer report to me, they will now have a broader set of responsibilities and will be better positioned for future growth.”

While their approaches have fundamental differences, each of these leaders knows that succession planning must remain at the top of their priority list. With a solid plan in place, they have created a culture where employees are at the top of their game and recruiters, like me, are sent off to poach from their competitors. For those of you who have kept turnover low, what lessons learned can you add to the list?

Martha Heller is the managing director of the IT Leadership Practice at the Z Resource Group, an executive recruiting firm based in Boston. She can be reached at 508-366-5800 x222 or