Succession planning for IT: Get some depth to your bench

One or two star employees aren't enough. Here's how smart IT managers identify and groom the strong tech team members of tomorrow.

reach for the stars

The potential for losing tech talent is on the rise these days. Thanks to an uptick in IT hiring and an increase in retirements among baby boomers, your A-team employee lineup may be in danger.

Rather than being caught without star performers, tech management must constantly think in terms of bench depth and grooming the key players of tomorrow, CIOs and other experts say. But with so much on IT managers' plates these days, it can be hard to make succession planning a top priority.

However, while "succession planning" or "bench strength" may not resonate much with IT managers, the concept of "risk mitigation" does, says Diane Morello, managing vice president of Gartner's executive leadership and innovation group in Stamford, Conn.

When put in terms of what's at risk -- the smooth operation and future development of IT systems that are indispensable to the company -- IT managers become more willing to make the time to identify rising stars and provide the necessary training, education and mentoring for tomorrow's leaders. And once that priority is established at the CIO level, Morello says, succession planning more easily becomes a priority throughout the rest of the department.

IT especially vulnerable to talent loss

At Prudential Financial, CIO Barbara Koster is keenly aware of the risk to the IT department's credibility should some key talent retire or be hired away.

"Succession planning in the IT department is critical, because you want to make sure the business is always prepared and protected. We can never be in a position where we're leaving the business worried about getting the support they need," says Koster, who is based in Newark, N.J., and manages some 2,200 tech employees in the U.S. "You want the business to feel very confident that you have it covered."

Succession planning is particularly important in high tech because the field is so specialized, CIOs say. The high level of technical expertise often required for IT jobs limits the potential talent pool when managers are looking to hire internally from another department.

And often IT leaders will find that a proportion of workers with a certain set of skills -- Web development, system architecture, network design -- aren't interested in developing the soft skills and other nontechnical qualifications required for a management position.

"IT skills and people skills don't really go together, so it becomes hard to identify and develop those soft skills," says Dan McCarthy, a corporate leadership developer who writes the Great Leadership blog.

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