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The Secret to Succession Planning: Start Now

As 2017 hurtles towards its wretched end, it is a time for reflection, budgeting, and planning. As a CIO what are you doing to replace yourself? Stop recoiling in horror; it’s part of your job to ensure effective long term leadership.

Within nine months, McDonald’s lost two CEOs to tragic circumstances; heart attack and cancer, respectively. That’s three CEO changes in less than a year. Fortunately, as a multi-national company McDonald’s had a deep bench.

Succession is no less an issue for the CIO position. In a company like McDonald’s the technical leadership bench is probably just as deep. In smaller shops, not so much.

Sooner or later, you’re going to go. God forbid, you fall ill unexpectedly, or you may come across a better opportunity.  Or, you may be unceremoniously released in the name of profitability and wind up broke and homeless, drinking cheap booze by the side of the road.

OK, so the last scenario may be a bit much, but it’s rare these days a CIO, or anyone in the C-suite, lasts forever. In fact, Computerworld pegs the CIO life span at five years.  

In addition to technical planning, staff and vendor management, budgeting, disaster recovery, data security, and so on, your responsibility as a CIO is to mentor staff, lobby for and invest in their professional development, and grow good lieutenants.  

Depending on your environment, this may not be an easy task. Training and professional development budgets are typically the first to go, even in robust economic times. It’s your job as CIO to make the argument that these investments are crucial as part of long term planning for the IT function.

This will not make you heroic. The perception of IT is often a blood sucking black hole of administrative spending where the IT department, like starved, blind, rooting, rabid pigs belly up to the money trough. Senior management may grudgingly agree to fund upgrades, and maybe technical training, but managerial training?  That’s just crazy talk.

As part of your lobbying strategy, it may be necessary to invoke the nuclear option; what happens if you disappear? The technical duties will be fine; even in a small shop, there usually exists enough engineering heft, internally or outsourced, to get by in a pinch.  Strategic planning, policy development, and management skills, however, are entirely different tools.

That’s where organizations get into trouble. In the absence of a senior IT manager, duties are imposed upon technical professionals absent any managerial training – an exercise in frustration for all concerned.

Want a recipe for failure? Anoint a manager.

Engineers and software professionals may not have the skill sets necessary to manage, budget, and collaborate with non-technical managers to execute overall strategy. Faced with these headaches on a daily basis, they decide to move on. Now the organization lacks not only senior IT management but there is a hole in the technical bench as well.

Not every technical professional aspires to management. Part of a CIO’s job is to recognize who among the staff possesses the motivation and potential to ascend to a leadership position.

According to this 2012 article in CIO Magazine, only 20% of the 1400 CIOs surveyed had any kind of succession plan in place. Succession doesn’t have to come from within, and a new set of eyes may be just what an organization needs. However, it’s imperative to consider company culture. External succession is expensive, time consuming, and has the potential for clash.

CIOs have dual responsibilities in this regard. There is the responsibility for the organization’s smooth operation past your tenure, as well as the responsibility toward the staff to grow their technical skills and identify managerial prospects and invest accordingly.

You need to leave the joint better than you found it.

Chris Romano"> Chris Romano
Chris Romano, a former CIO, spent 25 years working for lawyers, so he’s going to hell when he dies. In between binge watching Bloomberg News and The Simpsons he continues to look for gainful employment. Offers or soul crushing rejections can reach him at
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