by Diane Frank

Plan for Succession

Apr 24, 20088 mins
IT Leadership

After you, who? To create a culture of succession in your shop use this checklist to lay the foundation.

CIOs know how to manage their own careers—few reach such lofty heights without mapping out some kind of a campaign. But what about succession planning? How many CIOs think about how their own career plans affect the prospects of those around them and the future of their companies?

The answer is, not many, according to leadership specialists and others with a bird’s-eye view of executive continuity. They say this needs to change if CIOs expect to close the profession’s looming leadership gap.

Companies traditionally focus on positioning employees and managers to meet the immediate needs of the business. Succession planning, on the other hand, is necessary because it creates leaders for the future, says UPS CIO Dave Barnes, who rose to that position three years ago through the shipping giant’s development plan.

“It’s knowing what leadership teams you have to have in place in the future to drive your strategy,” he says. “We don’t want them to be a mirror of us today; we want them to be ready for tomorrow.”

Few C-level executives are looking that far into the future, says Chris Patrick, a partner at executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International . Executives often know which skills and attributes a company values in its leaders, but that’s not the same as developing a plan to deliver on that vision. “Succession planning is more often than not an afterthought that is not sufficiently managed or thought through,” Patrick says.


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For CIOs who want to develop that long view of leadership, there is no right or wrong way to craft a succession plan. Some may prefer to try case-by-case training and mentoring; others may want to document a process that includes formal evaluations and a line item in the budget for management and technical development. CIOs who do succession planning agree that a good plan is flexible, it adapts to an organization’s needs and people, and it should be established in cooperation with HR. But it should be placed within the office of the CIO.

What follows is a succession plan checklist drawn from the experiences of CIOs who have successfully developed a process for fostering leadership in their IT organizations.

Perform Needs Assessments

The top question to ask yourself when starting any kind of personnel planning is: What skills does the IT organization need, and what leadership does the company need from IT?

Within that question are a host of others, such as:

  • Are there management demands not being met by current executives?
  • How many managers are due to retire within five, 10 years?
  • Is anyone at the senior level looking to move into a new role?

Specific questions will differ. The point is that no matter what the capabilities of the people in the pipeline, the company and the CIO must envision a need for those skills. Don’t be dazzled by the capabilities or career goals of the people under you, says Greg Dallas, vice president of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area , whose responsibilities include oversight of IT.

Some of these questions can be identified and answered within the IT group, but working with HR will help standardize and align your assessments with the business. And while org charts have gained a bad name, when it comes to determining succession, they serve as clear documentation of the company’s plans.

Determine How Far Down the Ladder to Start

How deep the succession plan should go is another issue to consider. Your direct reports are obviously targets for full-on succession development, but it’s often worthwhile to push succession planning down to middle management, such as regional directors or functional unit heads. That way, when someone moves up internally, there are people ready to step in and there isn’t a domino effect of empty positions down the line, says Kumud Kalia, CIO and executive vice president of customer operations at Direct Energy .

Creating a pipeline that draws people from the bottom to the top and identifies junior-level staff who could move up into management can help. At The Options Clearing Corp. (OCC) , IT leaders identified a set of traits, skills and knowledge considered necessary for each job in the department, and they use that to evaluate the development possibilities for employees. Working with IT, the HR department has also built those criteria into the hiring process. This increases the chance that IT will be hiring those who will fit into the development process, says Executive Vice President and CIO John Von Stein.

Early identification of staff for leadership development and advancement requires a thorough and consistent approach to individual development plans. This allows for more dynamic and agile employee management since skills can be developed for multiple roles, but it is also important not to push people too fast, too soon, says George Hall, SVP of HR for Information Resources at Marriott International .

Evaluate Skills, Performance and Growth

Once you’ve identified your management needs, it’s time to determine who can fill them now and in the future. A good place to start this process is with your employee performance evaluations. Make sure they include an examination of individual goals for growth. Expanding on those assessments of future goals can form the core of the CIO’s succession plan.

Identifying skills to be developed often directly matches the company’s needs assessment. HR can assist the CIO by maintaining and updating the information at a corporate level and in overseeing the question, Are we investing in your people properly?

Marriott uses a Human Capital Review process to provide an initial evaluation of talent against “key dimensions.” For the IT group, this includes identifying an employee’s strengths in leading teams and developing strategy both within IT and with business unit partners; examining areas for further technical and management growth; and a broad evaluation of current opportunities and the employee’s readiness to step into those positions. This forms the basis for a comprehensive human capital management process that covers all aspects of talent management and development, Hall says.

Identify Potential

This is harder than it sounds. Potential is hard to pin down, says Direct Energy’s Kalia. You obviously want to encourage all employees to improve existing skills and performance. But how, for example, do you identify the individuals who are good at managing people on a single project versus those who could manage an entire department in the future?

This is usually best done by the CIO and other senior leaders. It requires knowing the people below you, talking with them, and learning whether others look to them, Kalia says.

At UPS, IT managers go through the same leadership identification process as those in any other unit, said Regina Hartley, IS portfolio support (Workforce Planning) HR manager. Every manager performs self-evaluations in four leadership areas—business, people, results and self—which are commented on and supplemented by his or her direct manager. All this feeds into a readiness rating that is shared with senior leadership across the company. This process provides a balanced view that is critical for the senior-level positions, where skills and knowledge must stretch across many areas, says UPS CIO Barnes.

Put Emerging Leaders to the Test

You’ve identified your potential leaders. Now it’s time to put these rising stars in positions that will allow you to test that potential, Dallas says. At some companies, such as UPS, this includes formal rotations through IT functions and business units. By giving potential leaders opportunities within the organization, the CIO can guide them and build their knowledge of the business. Tactics to try include:

  • Making them the lead on a new project
  • Letting them sit in with you on a management meeting
  • Designating them as your alternate when you are out

Although there can also be a standard menu of opportunities to choose from, development plans should be customized to the individuals, Kalia says. A formula or template can go only so far, because the amount of flexibility needed to accommodate different gaps and goals can vary widely, he says.

And don’t forget to offer a safety net, Von Stein says. Make it clear that budding leaders will not be penalized for failing at something outside their comfort zones. This will increase the number of those willing to stretch themselves and try new roles.

Keep Succession Criteria Consistent and Up to Date

A robust succession plan is one that is perpetuated throughout the organization, becoming part of the corporate culture. “Succession planning is not a means to an end; it’s the end itself,” Marriott’s Hall says. “It’s really what falls out of doing other things correctly.” The OCC periodically tweaks the core of its succession plan, adding to the leadership traits that it believes are critical in any job. Those tweaks reflect changes to the company and its market and affect every part of the leadership development process.

The bottom line, Von Stein says, is that those leaders who move up through a succession plan should want to use it in the future to identify, select and groom the next generation. Otherwise, the plan disappears and succession stops.

Diane Frank is a Content Development Specialist for the CIO Executive Council.