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Succession Planning: The Key to Long-Term IT Success

August 14, 2013

When an employee moves on from their role in an organization they leave more than just an empty desk.  Senior IT professionals in particular can take with them years of knowledge about industry and culture as well as valuable soft skills that can’t be replaced overnight.  And talent isn’t necessarily easy to find either—when Zynga let a hundred or so developers go, recruiters started to comment on news articles about the layoffs with job offers. So what’s the secret to surviving loss of talent when talent is especially difficult to track down in the first place? Succession planning.

While there are dozens of stories about succession plans, none is quite as striking as the story of McDonald’s and its three CEOs in two years.  Jim Cantalupo was appointed CEO in 2003 out of retirement, and while he turned the company around after his predecessor’s overspending, he died suddenly and unexpectedly in April of 2004. He had a massive heart attack at 5 in the morning on the morning of a meeting of owners and directors in Florida. But because the board was already assembled for the meeting, and because Cantalupo had been grooming a successor, they were able to identify and elect a new CEO before the stock market opened. Charlie Bell was the young new leader, and he took to the role like a fish to water.

But on the heels of on tragedy came another: mere months after taking on the role, Bell was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and had to step down by November of 2012. The board, though, never dreamed of looking outside the organization for the next CEO. Jim Skinner, McDonald’s current CEO, was the obvious choice for the same reasons why Bell had been months before: he had been groomed for such a role and was prepared to step in. Now, Skinner regularly asks his managers for the names of “two people who could replace you”, because it’s that sort of thinking that saved McDonald’s from suffering any more than it already had.    

IT succession planning is just as critical as C-suite succession planning, for many of the same reasons. While success as an IT professional requires a certain amount of technical knowledge, soft skills are crucial as well, and these take longer to develop. It’s important for firms to be actively working with leadership candidates in technical roles so that if the unthinkable happens—from a McDonald’s-esque emergency to a top performer’s sudden departure—everyone in the organization is prepared.

Succession planning allows critical organizational information and cultural knowledge to be maintained, too. When a role opens up, it’s almost always easier to fill it with a candidate who knows the organization and is already a good fit. In this time of IT talent shortages, it’s growing increasingly difficult to pin down talent—so planning ahead for inevitable brain drain with qualified, prepared internal candidates is a great investment.

With that in mind, take a look at these keys to succession planning from CIO Zone:

  1. Develop a framework to identify high-potential employees
  2. Identify leadership criteria
  3. Provide  both training and development opportunities.
  4. Promote interaction between senior managers and promising employees
  5. Ensure the involvement of senior leaders.

Sticking to these criteria will ensure that your organization is prepared for whatever comes your way.

Anything we missed? What makes a great succession plan for an IT department?  Let us know in the comments!

Posted By: Madeline Stone


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