Grooming Your Successor Is Critical

When you move on to another position, who will take your place? The answer may not be as straightforward as you think.

Most companies today do have a succession planning system in place, it’s true. But consider this: At a company I worked for, a CIO position in a critical business unit became available due to unforeseen circumstances. The business unit president asked me for help in filling the position. At our initial meeting, I asked to review the top candidates identified in the formal management succession plan. The president’s response? “None of those candidates are really serious contenders for the job.” And this was in a company with a well-defined and disciplined succession planning process.

In fact, the number of times a replacement candidate was chosen from the formal system was far less than one would expect. The result was that everyone’s expectations were disappointed: those who thought they were serious candidates for the position, those who assumed the position could be filled promptly from a pool of ready candidates and those who invested a lot of time participating in the planning process.

There are a lot of good reasons for succession planning, not the least of which is your own ability to move on to other opportunities without jeopardizing the progress of your organization. But at all too many organizations, planning is really just a paper process without much real benefit. How can you make good plans for your own succession? Let’s begin by forgetting about the process and the paper.

Start Early

This may be radical, but I believe succession starts with recruiting. Think about the requirements of the CIO position and how different they are today from what they were five years ago. It is not enough to hire excellent technical people. You need to assess their potential for the other dimensions of success, including business savvy, good communication skills and leadership.

Some years ago, I tried to make this point with my managers as we were deciding which of our MBA summer interns would get permanent offers. The managers unfailingly rated the best technically skilled intern as the top choice. But I reminded them of our end-of-summer dinner party and rated highest those who were best able to participate in the dinner conversation. My managers then enhanced our ranking system to capture this element, with a little humour: Those who could converse with me through dessert ranked highest; those who made it through the main course came next; and those who couldn’t get through the salad were ranked last. Obviously, this was not the only criterion, but it was a way to bring people with the potential to advance into the organization.

Appreciate Variety

Don’t assume that your successor must have the same profile you do. Try to develop a range of talents, not a clone of yourself. Organizations change and the needs for leadership can also change over time. At Xerox Corp., I replaced a strong business leader (who went on to be president of a Xerox division). We built on that business foundation and focused on growing our technical excellence. In this case, the mix of business and technical experience in my profile provided the multidimensional leadership needed for the organization to grow in other dimensions.

Provide Opportunities

Many times those who are potential successors do not really know what they are letting themselves in for. Provide the experiences that will help them understand the role. For example, let them sit in your place when you go on vacation. They will get to see the problems that typically cross your desk. Empower them to take action and commit to live with their decisions when you return.

Enhance Their Credibility

One of the most daunting challenges for a CIO, especially for those who have followed the traditional IT career path, is establishing credibility with the senior business executives. Moving from a narrow or functional specialty to a broader business context is a big step. Help your potential successors establish credibility. Give them opportunities to be showcased with the senior executives. Protect them in that environment. Transfer some of your own credibility through your sponsorship remarks about them. This may be more important than you think. Assuming your company is satisfied with your performance, it can be hard for your colleagues to believe anyone else could have the same level of competence you do. And that can be a problem: If you have no successor alternatives, you will be stuck in your position long after you desire to move on.

Set Them Free

Sometimes the best way to ensure qualified successors is to let them go. Encourage your managers to broaden their experience. You may be able to do this with temporary assignments or task force participation. You may have to let one of your best go to another position to get the experience. Either way, it will be a long-term investment. With the experience they gain, they will be that much more valuable when they return.

Be Honest

Be honest in your feedback and assessment of potential successors. Your feedback is one of the most valuable gifts you can give employees. You have the personal experience of the job and the best view of their skills and performance. Balance their potential future with their present skills.

Look Far…

If successors are not readily available in your own organization, look beyond IT. Go to the business. Seek out and build relationships with potential. Those who have not grown up in IT are not always aware of the possibilities. Recruit them for a rotational assignment, if possible. It is a way for them to experience IT without making a long-term career decision. One of my most successful recruits came to IT from a field sales organization for what was to be an 18-month to two-year assignment. She never went back, and ultimately became the CIO of a major division.

…And Wide

If necessary, go outside the company. Bring in an experienced executive to be second in command. Recruiting from the outside has some benefits and some risks. New perspectives are always valuable. New people see things differently, and that can be a real catalyst for change. The downside is the need to integrate that new person in the culture. That integration strategy isn’t easy, but it’s essential to the newcomer’s ability to gain respect.

Your efforts in implementing these actions will be of great benefit to your people and your organization. Make sure your own career plans are included. Good luck!

Before retiring in 1999, Patricia Wallington was corporate vice-president and CIO at Xerox Corp. She is currently the president of CIO Associates based in Sarasota, Fla.