Monday, April 05, 2010

Succession Planning for the CIO

Over the weekend, I was returning from a trip along with a score of other CIOs when an interesting debate started as the aircraft was taxied for take-off. In jest, a fellow CIO raised the question, “What would happen to the industry, our companies and the IT world at large, if the plane were to have a mishap? Apart from loss of 20 of the IT industry’s brightest minds, what other repercussions would the industry see, or our companies feel?” It set off a chain of thoughts which required serious thinking.

Every mature organization gives a lot of focus to developing layers of management. These organizations encourage its leaders to identify high potential talent, which can be groomed to take on higher responsibilities. Such an exercise is of help when the organization faces attrition at senior levels or expands, creating new opportunities for existing leadership teams. In such situations, the next levels of leaders are able to take on the mantle with minimal disruption to operations and strategic directions.

However, life does not always follow a pattern. Thus, there are disruptions when employees leave suddenly, or the planning process has not been able to groom a pipeline of leaders. Hiring from outside normally creates a gap, and learning curves can be counterproductive. This does not imply that organizations should always promote internal talent, but a move to provide the opportunities internally does definitely offer continuity.

Coming back to the IT organization, CIOs have come to the fore over the last decade. CIOs have taken on business challenges, and proved themselves by engaging the enterprise beyond usual technology solutions. Their contributions have been recognized, and many have permanent positions within management teams. In a few cases, they are also invited to join the Board.

As the CIO’s stature grows, so does the teams’ aspirations. Gaps in business understanding, communication, and team management are narrowing across IT staff. However, grooming a successor requires a different approach very similar to Boards grooming the next CEO. The CIO should consciously work towards creating the next level of leaders who s/he can depend upon in cases of exigency, and also provide additional bandwidth to take on sudden increases in demand or business growth.

Nurturing high potential talent to become a CIO does not necessarily have to be from within the IT function. Aspiring and talented individuals from other functions could also be good candidates. This is borne out by the fact that some enterprises have appointed CIOs from business functions in the recent past. The CIO needs to recognize that lateral hires can be as effective as technology staff, while taking a dispassionate view.

A common grievance is that the high potential next level CIOs seek opportunities outside more often, so why go through the rigmarole? If opportunities for growth are not aligned to the aspirations of the next level of IT leaders, they will seek to create their career growth outside. This can be managed to some extent by setting the right expectations, communication, and finally the CIO challenging the CEO to explore growth. Unless the CIO takes on new opportunities including lateral movement, the retention challenge will be difficult to address.

Are you grooming your next level to challenge your position? Are they ready to take on your role, should you decide to move laterally, or out of the organization? If not, start now. You owe it to yourself and the company, because your growth depends on this.

Fortunately, the flight landed safely. As we collected our luggage, I had some solace that the talent pipeline was strong.

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