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.

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There's at least one hidden benefit of nurturing multiple layers of potential leaders at different stages in their careers. If the company decides to change its business focus, management can leverage new IT talent quickly and reassign positions to support that new emphasis, says Koster. "You think you're operating with one set of objectives, but things change," she says. "You need to know your talent very well throughout the year if you're going to put a team together quickly."

Great Leadership's McCarthy says that filling the benches shouldn't be an in-house-only activity. He urges managers to build a "virtual bench" outside the organizational ranks.

"A lot of companies are encouraging managers, developers or top sales reps to be recruiting all the time, to have a virtual bench, so if your star player gets called up, you've got a folder of people outside of the company -- people you've been having lunch with, networking with, touching base with on a regular basis -- so that you've got candidates lined up," says McCarthy.

Guard against employee overconfidence

Employees at Atlanta-based Southern Co., which produces energy and owns electric utilities in four states, tend to spend their entire careers there, says CIO Becky Blalock. That happens at a lot of utility companies, she notes.

While this continuity benefits the company, the downside is that entire swaths of people can end up retiring at the same time, says Blalock. Currently, the average age among the company's 1,100-strong IT staff is 44, and many workers are reaching the minimum retirement age, which can be as early as 50 with the appropriate accredited service.

To deal with retirement and other staffing changes, the company has what Blalock describes as a very robust succession-planning process. For example, every year Blalock is asked by her superiors to list five employees who could replace her "if I'm run over by a truck tomorrow," she says. She breaks this list into potential replacements who are ready today, and those who would be ready in a year or two.

"I have some people on my team on that list that are very talented. They could walk in and no one would miss me," Blalock says. "I like to think I'm irreplaceable, but I'm not."

As part of the succession planning process, Southern's management informs employees who have been earmarked for a future leadership position about its plans for them. Such moves can backfire if the staffer becomes overconfident, but it's better than investing time in training and grooming an employee who doesn't really have an interest in taking on a leadership role, says Blalock.

"We tell them there are no guarantees or promises, this is just an opportunity," she says. Rising stars are enrolled in the company's leadership development programs and are given mentors to help them get the corporate coaching they need to move up.

Blalock also encourages employees in her department to take positions in different parts of the company to help them learn the business. If they return to the IT department at a later point, they'll bring that deeper understanding with them, she says.

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