Successful planning pays

Most large companies don’t have succession plans, and even those that do don’t plan as deeply through levels of staff as they should. “Companies focus on hiring processes, getting people, ratcheting up and down,” said Jason Richardson, president of Cutting Edge Information Inc., a research firm in Durham, N.C., that studied succession plans in 42 companies, most in the Fortune 500. This focus is wrong, he said. “If you’re shifting people in and out without a plan, you won’t maintain performance, and you won’t get better.”

Succession planning is even more important – and less common – in IT, where success hinges on a broad range of hard-to-find skills, from technical expertise to business and technical analysis abilities.

This is something that Tracey Evans appreciates.

For the manager of people relations at University of British Columbia’s IT services department in Vancouver, succession planning is a key way to retain valued employees. IT is quite decentralized at the campus so IT services doesn’t deploy all of the tech professionals across campus. This gives IT staff at UBC a lot more flexibility in their career path – they can leave the IT services department but still remain an asset to the university.

“All the way, we’re serving UBC by being able to retain that talent within the broader community,” Evans said. This is important because it’s hard to put a price on the cost of losing an employee who has been with the university for years and has built relationships with people across the campus.

The university tries to ease its staffs’ concerns as projects come and go, and always emphasizes that it’s the greater need of the university that drives the elimination of some lines of business and the creation of others.

IT services also works with individual staff members to see where they want to be in the future. Sometimes this means deciding that in the course of six to 12 months it wants to move an employee from one project to another. During that time, the department works with the employee to build his or her skill sets. At other times, Evans said, it could mean just letting employees stay where they are so they can build experience.

When the university is unsure of the staffing levels it will need for a new project, it sometimes relies on contracts. This helps it to avoid having to layoff people, she said.

Succession planning “is a pipeline for our future,” said Margaret Schweer, director of human resources for IT at Kraft Foods Inc. in Northfield, Ill. “It pervades everything we do: how I staff my organization, feedback, guidance, opportunities. It’s everything.”

After year-end reviews, Kraft begins the succession-planning cycle, which it calls “advancement planning,” with management meetings covering junior to executive levels. At each level, managers examine selection processes, feedback, development plans and skills gaps and then select the likely candidates for advancement and determine appropriate development activities.

The difference between companies that do IT succession planning and those that don’t is their understanding of its value. Preparing for long-term IT succession planning means sharpening a company’s in-house skills portfolio by focusing on the career development of key employees. It buffers the IT group against the anticipated exodus of talent caused by baby boomers beginning to retire and workers searching for greener pastures as the economy improves. Succession planning can help integrate recruitment and retention efforts, career planning, development, forecasting and performance appraisal.

A good plan will highlight current and future skills gaps and tailor efforts that prepare people to fit those demands. It will point to key people you can’t afford to lose and focus retention efforts on them, and it will help you craft performance appraisals to balance the needs of the company with those of the individual.

Because it’s future-oriented, succession planning prepares a company for new markets, technologies and business strategies, as well as expansion, contraction and other contingencies. And it goes straight to the bottom line: “If you want the IT organization to do more with less, you have to make sure that execution continues uninterrupted,” said Kazim Isfahani, an analyst at Robert Frances Group Inc., a human capital consulting firm in Westport, Conn.

IT succession planning looks at the whole organization, not just the top.

“It’s not so much the level of the person; it’s the criticality of the function to the business,” explains Linda Pittenger, CEO of People3, a human resources consulting firm in Bridgewater, N.J. “Traditional succession planning looks at the CIO, but I say, ‘Who’s your DBA that you can’t lose?'”

IT succession planning attempts to match business/IT strategy with the career aspirations of IT staff. It’s an ongoing goal. “You’re going to have a constant process, not a one-time deal,” Pittenger said.

Working in partnership

Ideally, succession planning is a partnership between human resources and IT. “The process – the how – should be owned by HR, but the work should be done by the IT leader in conjunction with HR,” Pittenger said.

But the process has to be embraced throughout the organization. “Multiple levels of management have to own it,” Schweer said. And the plan has to be integrated into IT daily. “If you’re doing it right, everybody is involved,” she said.

The biggest challenge in IT succession planning seems to be getting it on the agenda. “A lot of companies don’t do this at all; they live in a panic state,” Pittenger said.

The other hurdle is agreeing that this isn’t a one-shot exercise. “You don’t create a healthy organization in a single year,” Schweer said. “And if you only think about it once a year, you’ve missed the point.”

– With files from Poonam Khanna