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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At executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Chicago, CIO Alwin Brunner says he doesn't explicitly let people on his staff know that they're being groomed for leadership positions. Instead, he focuses on making sure that potential future managers get the training and education required to make the leap.

"For example, I have a director who is very bright and very good, and when we talk about her future, we plan her training, professional education and experience, but I don't say explicitly, 'You're a high-performance employee,' " explains Brunner, who has been CIO at Heidrick & Struggles for about a year but has dealt with succession planning in previous positions as well. Brunner believes it's not prudent to make promises about employees' futures, since he can't guarantee he'll still be in a position to promote them down the road.

His caution is particularly apt these days. The IT department at Heidrick & Struggles is currently in transition -- outsourcing will dwindle its ranks from its current 65 employees down to 43 once the transformation is over, says Brunner. Because of this transition, succession planning in the IT department isn't as high a priority as it should be, he says, although he does want to make sure there are clear plans for the employees who will remain with the company, in order to promote retention and ensure some continuity.

Heidrick & Struggles' IT department isn't alone; many organizations have a hard time prioritizing succession planning as more pressing problems pile up.

"We are similar to any other IT organization; we get distracted by the immediate," says Dennis Aebersold, vice president for IT and CIO at the University of Oklahoma. "Still, succession planning and organizational development will always be high on my agenda. Our development programs, combined with the coaching that supports those programs, make succession planning a continual process for us."

Learn to spot a good bench player

One aspect of succession planning that isn't difficult is spotting up-and-comers in the organization, says Aebersold.

"If you asked my team how I identify rising stars, they would all say one word: sparkle. How do you identify sparkle? You just know it," says Aebersold, who is in charge of the university's CIO Rising Stars program, which aims to identify two individuals each year who, with exposure to IT leadership, could become leaders themselves.

These employees attend leadership team meetings and are involved in discussions about staff development, strategic planning, organizational priorities, and planning and building key relationships.

In addition, the university offers development programs for training and formal coaching, where IT professionals are appointed to lead peer coaching groups. And separately, the university's internship program gives student employees hands-on experience in areas such as ERP, database management, mobile development, networking and security, says Aebersold.

Heidrick & Struggles' Brunner says he hasn't run into a situation where he was grooming someone for advancement who turned out not to be interested. "You pick the people for leadership who are volunteering for new assignments. You can see it and feel it when you dialog with them," he says.

Future leaders "are passionate and hungry to learn more -- and not just about technology," agrees Aebersold. "These are people who constantly expand their experiences and are not afraid to step outside of their comfort zone."

If you're still tempted to let succession planning slide to the bottom of your to-do list, consider this: IT organizations that encourage layers of succession planning and workforce development enjoy more success as a department, says Gartner's Morello. And CIOs who emphasize strategic workforce development tend to be highly successful executives, while those who don't make it a priority score much lower, Morello says, based on her firm's studies.

If you want to be a winning tech exec, in other words, you need a good team to back you up.

Frequent contributor Cara Garretson is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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