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CIO succession planning critical as IT drives business growth

Clint Boulton | Aug. 27, 2015
CIOs say proper succession planning is a crucial part of their responsibilities. But it's not an easy job at a time when talented IT staff can rake in big salaries working on innovative projects, without putting themselves under the C-suite microscope.

picking a successor

As technology becomes increasingly woven throughout the fabric of business, it’s incumbent on CIOs to build a deep bench of IT leaders that includes one or more candidates who can step into should they move to a different position or retire.

Ideally, these CIOs-in-training will make the organization stronger, helping companies meet their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders. But CIOs say identifying candidates can be challenging at a time when talented professionals can make good money using technology to drive innovation without the hassle of the board looking over their shoulders.

“It’s every leader’s responsibility to plan for his or her eventual departure,” says Jay Ferro, CIO of the American Cancer Society.

Succession planning may seem like common business sense but it wasn't always a requirement for corporate IT departments, historically tasked to make sure the computers worked. More organizations now look to technology as an engine for business growth and must have a succession plan for the CIO. "IT used to just keep the lights on, but now they're using IT to create a competitive advantage," John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technology, says. "In many organizations today, the IT group sits with the business group and is very involved in strategic decisions."

Ferro, who joined ACS in 2012, says that he has about five candidates who will be capable of doing his job in one to two years, with proper mentoring. Preparing the company in the event something happens to him is good corporate responsibility. “It mitigates the risk to the organization that if I get hit by a bus or win the lottery we’ll be in good shape," Ferro says. That might create a sort of tension for some leaders but Ferro says that CIOs who feel threatened by talented subordinates might not be the leaders their companies need. "A players hire A players," he says. "B players hire C players because they feel threatened." He also says he challenges his direct reports to identify three people that can take their role, further buttressing the company's IT ranks.

Succession planning starts at the top

Succession planning is often driven by the board of directors and CEO. Ferro says that while he learned about succession planning while working at insurance company AIG, ACS' board is "very keen" on the work because it mitigates risk. But, generally, he says a good succession plan is vital for CIOs who want to cultivate a good legacy for when they leave. "You don't want to disrupt a company that is meaningful to you," he says.

Owens Corning CIO Steven Zerby, whose succession plan includes both external and internal candidates, says the work requires the delicate balancing act of finding time for candidates who typically have "big jobs" as heads of infrastructure or application development to learn the CIO role while still performing their daily duties. For example, a CIO might invite his mentee into a weekly meeting with a CISO to learn how CIOs interact with other business partners. He says it's crucial that CIOs make the time to let candidates see what they do so they can learn how to prioritize tasks, and when to purchase technology or build solutions internally. "The trick is carving off time for them to be watching and learning," he says.


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