Grooming the CIO's successor

Information technology organizations that fail at succession planning falter when the CIO leaves -- which occurs with greater frequency than with any other top executive position. Although it appears to have stabilized in recent years, the average CIO tenure remains between 18 and 36 months. In comparison, the average tenure of a chief financial officer is closer to five years.

Understandably, with myriad IT issues and projects competing for attention, succession planning isn't high on the CIO priority list. That's a human resources function, right? Maybe it is for a CIO in a company that has a formal succession-planning process, but less than one-third of U.S. companies actually do executive succession planning.

Even when HR takes the lead, the CIO is an integral part of the succession-planning process. In fact, it's the CIO's responsibility to ensure that the company has the IT leadership and management talent to sustain growth and profitability if the CIO should make a sudden departure.

An IT succession plan is closely related to the IT strategic plan, which sets forth the direction of the IT organization and how it aligns with the company's business goals. Simply put, the succession plan specifies how the human resources in the IT organization will evolve to achieve that strategic vision.

The first step in succession planning is to predict the technology leadership and business management talent that the IT organization will need three to five years out. Next, come up with a list of qualifications for the future CIO and key IT managers in terms of experience, knowledge, skills and abilities.

Then, each member of the current leadership team should be compared against these qualifications. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, the CIO may consider engaging outside assistance. This phase can be accomplished in about four to six weeks, involving one to two days per week of effort.

The next step is for the CIO to identify one to three potential successors (either internal or external) and to evaluate each one's level of readiness to move into the CIO role. This effort should be repeated for the next level down in the IT organization as well.

While the CIO owns the succession-planning process, HR's assistance is invaluable in helping to groom potential successors. Working with HR, the CIO should prepare an individual development plan for each candidate. The plan should detail how that person will acquire the requisite experience, knowledge, skills and abilities to move up in the IT organization. A periodic progress review is also necessary -- at least annually, but every six months is better.

There are several ways to develop a succession candidate. One is formal training to learn more about what it takes to be a CIO and how to prepare for this position. Options include seminars and courses offered by the American Management Association, the intensive nine-month Regional Leadership Forums sponsored by the Society for Information Management, or one of the CIO "boot camps" sponsored by Gartner and others.

But formal training is only part of the process. Candidate development often includes planned job rotations within the IT department -- for example, senior directors rotating through computer operations, application development, telecommunications and planning functions -- as well as opportunities to gain experience in other departments, such as finance and administration, or in specific business units. Also, mentoring candidates in areas such customer service, vendor management, contract negotiation, business consulting and project management can help round out their skills.

Some CIOs may feel threatened by the concept of CIO succession planning, viewing the succession candidates as a replacement threat rather than part of a backup plan for orderly succession. But developing one or more strong candidates demonstrates that the incumbent CIO is concerned about the continuity of IT leadership and about protecting the company's technology investment. Having a ready successor may also allow a CIO in a larger or growing enterprise to move into another executive role -- without having to leave the company or leave the IT organization with weak leadership.

- Norbert J. Kubilus is a CIO partner at Tatum Partners in San Diego. He can be contacted at

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