Picking Your Successor

By Frank Petersmark

With apologies to Pete Townshend and The Who, the title of one of the British band’s iconic rock albums seems a fitting place to start, and the question to ask, when it comes to CIO succession planning: Who’s next?

Some have referred to succession planning as planning for one’s eventual obsolescence. It’s not a trivial issue given the importance of technology in nearly every industry today, which makes it’s all the more curious that most organizations and CIOs give short shrift to succession planning for this critical position.

In the past, and this was particularly true of IT, those who ended up in management tended to be those with the best technical skills in whatever discipline or field they specialized in. Such was the case for me as after a technical career as a computer operator, applications programmer and systems programmer, I was steadily promoted up the management ranks.

That was fine, and it gave me a more empathetic perspective about what it took to implement and manage complex technology initiatives. However, it did not equip me for the skills required in executive management; I acquired those through sometimes-painful trial and error.

None of the skills I gained, however, helped prepare me to think about grooming my successor as, for the most part, I was more concerned about holding on to the job myself. And the last thing I wanted was to give my boss any good options for replacing me. However, once I learned to stop looking over my shoulder and to focus on the organization’s best interests, I was forced to think in terms of my own career mortality.

It probably helped that my tenure was during the era of the human capital planning frenzy. The one positive thing the human capital frenzy accomplished was to obligate organizations to think about succession planning in a more holistic and enterprise-level manner. On balance, this was good, but it did include the process of ruthlessly rating people’s future potential, and focusing the resources of the organization on the chosen ones. As it turns out, the position that most organizations struggled with in terms of succession planning was the CIO position.

There are several reasons for this difficulty. 

First, unlike other executive positions, the precise definition of what a CIO does is still a moving target. Yes, a CIO is responsible for overall technology strategy, execution, budget, etc., but that’s not all of it. In today’s rapidly changing technology landscape, many CIOs are expected to be the technology prognosticators, somehow magically being able to accurately predict the future of technology. On the other end of the spectrum, many CIOs are still viewed as the chief “techie” guy, the one who everybody looks to when a video presentation isn’t working at the board meeting. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.

Second, like other C-Suite executives, CIOs are often extremely time-constrained and lack or don’t make the time to develop the next levels of IT leadership. Even if they are blessed with a talented and dependable team of lieutenants, most CIOs find it difficult to carve out the time to focus on the kinds of leadership development that are intrinsic to succession planning.

The third reason, more borne from self-preservation than anything else, is that the CIO position has not been the most stable of executive positions. One need only look at the average tenures of CIOs compared to other executive positions to understand why some CIOs may be reluctant to groom their replacement.

Frank Petersmark
Frank Petersmark
Frank Petersmark is the CIO advocate at X by 2, a technology consulting firm in Farmington Hills, MI, that specializes in IT transformation projects for the insurance and healthcare industries. Formerly CIO and vice president of information technology at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Company, Petersmark has more 30 years' experience as an IT professional and executive.

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