How to add depth to your IT team's bench

One or two star employees aren't enough. Here's how smart IT managers identify and groom strong tech team members

The potential for losing tech talent is on the rise these days. Thanks to an uptick in IT hiring and an increase in retirements among baby boomers, your A-team employee lineup may be in danger.

Rather than getting caught without star performers, you must constantly think in terms of establishing bench depth and grooming the key players of tomorrow, CIOs and other experts say. But with so much on IT managers' plates these days, it can be hard to make succession planning a top priority.

Succession Planning 101

Definition: Succession planning ensures that vital positions in an organization have qualified internal candidates ready to step into key roles, reducing the risk of business disruption from talent loss.

Best practices: Think about positions two to three years into the future and tie succession planning to the organization's long-term goals. Companies typically do this for top executives, but they should also identify hard-to-replace technical people like IT specialists and engineers. Managers should assess whether candidates are ready to move up, identify any skill gaps, and provide training and/or special assignments to fill those gaps.

Tools: There are "talent management" software products that attempt to automate the process by giving managers a place to define job requirements, collect information about potential candidates and match potential candidates to higher-level jobs.

Source: Forrester Research Inc.

However, while "succession planning" or "bench strength" may not resonate much with IT managers, the concept of risk mitigation does, says Diane Morello, an IT management analyst at Gartner Inc.

When succession planning is put in terms of what's at risk -- the smooth operation and future development of IT systems that are indispensable to the company -- IT managers become more willing to make the time to identify rising stars and provide the necessary training, education and mentoring for tomorrow's leaders. And once that priority is established at the CIO level, Morello says, succession planning becomes a priority more readily throughout the rest of the department.

At Prudential Financial, CIO Barbara Koster is keenly aware of the risk to the IT department's credibility, should some key talent retire or be hired away.

"Succession planning in the IT department is critical, because you want to make sure the business is always prepared and protected. We can never be in a position where we're leaving the business worried about getting the support they need," says Koster, who manages some 2,200 tech employees in the U.S. "You want the business to feel very confident that you have it covered."

Succession planning is particularly important in high tech because the field is so specialized, CIOs say. The high level of technical expertise often required for IT jobs limits the potential talent pool when managers are looking to hire internally from another department.

And often IT leaders will find that a proportion of workers with a certain set of skills -- Web development, systems architecture, network design -- aren't interested in developing the nontechnical skills required for a management position.

"IT skills and people skills don't really go together, so it becomes hard to identify and develop those soft skills," says Dan McCarthy, a corporate leadership developer who writes the Great Leadership blog.

To be sure, high performers who don't want to move into management are still essential to the organization, and management experts say the key to retaining such employees is to ensure that they receive support and training in the latest technologies and are given interesting, challenging projects.

As for the employees who do show leadership potential, McCarthy and other industry watchers recommend that IT managers scout them out early in their careers and shepherd them along accordingly.

Identifying Top Talent

The key to maintaining departmentwide continuity and reliability is identifying not just the stars of tomorrow, but going a few levels deeper to scope out employees with the potential to step up to the plate years from now.

At Prudential, as part of the company's succession planning and management program, managers in IT and other areas are instructed to look for three types of rising stars: next-generation leaders who currently exhibit the required skills to step into management; emerging leaders who have good technical skills and, with grooming, could become leaders within a few years; and employees who work well with management and in teams -- those with soft skills that can blossom into full-blown management potential.

Equally important is recognizing those skilled workers who want to advance in the company but not into management -- for example, a junior Web developer who wants to amass the training and experience to become a senior Web developer, or an application developer who is seeking a new challenge and wants to learn different IT skills. While these employees aren't on the management track, they still require care and feeding.

"Some people say 'I really don't have the desire to manage, I really just want to hone my technical skills,' or 'I really love being a Web developer,' and if that's what they want to do, you have to respect that," says Koster. "Putting them into something they don't want to do can hurt them."

IT leadership works on filling in gaps by providing potential managers with appropriate training, education and mentoring, says Koster. The multitasking millennial generation, for example, has much to contribute, but also much to learn. "The way they multitask is phenomenal; it increases productivity," says Koster. "We're incorporating things [from them] and putting those into the Prudential model. But they're also learning about the [company's] history and how our products work."

There's at least one latent benefit of nurturing multiple layers of potential leaders at different stages in their careers. If the company decides to change its business focus, management can leverage new IT talent quickly and reassign positions to support that new emphasis, says Koster. "You think you're operating with one set of objectives, but things change," she says. "You need to know your talent very well throughout the year if you're going to put a team together quickly."

Setting Realistic Expectations

Employees at Atlanta-based Southern Co., which produces energy and owns electric utilities in four states, tend to spend their entire careers there, says CIO Becky Blalock. That happens at a lot of utility companies, she notes.

While this continuity benefits the company, the downside is that entire swaths of people can end up retiring at the same time, says Blalock. Currently, the average age among the company's 1,100-strong IT staff is 44, and many workers are reaching the minimum retirement age, which can be as early as 50 with the appropriate accredited service.

To deal with retirement and other staffing changes, the company has what Blalock describes as a very robust succession-planning process. For example, every year Blalock is asked by her superiors to list five employees who could replace her "if I'm run over by a truck tomorrow," she says. She breaks this list into potential replacements who are ready today, and those who could be ready in a year or two.

"I have some people on my team on that list that are very talented. They could walk in and no one would miss me," Blalock says. "I like to think I'm irreplaceable, but I'm not."

As part of the succession planning process, Southern's management team informs employees who have been earmarked for future leadership positions about its plans for them. That policy can backfire if a staffer becomes overconfident, but it's better than investing time in training and grooming an employee who doesn't really have an interest in taking on a leadership role, says Blalock.

"We tell them there are no guarantees or promises, this is just an opportunity," she says. Rising stars are enrolled in the company's leadership development programs and are given mentors to help them get the corporate coaching they need to move up.

Blalock also encourages employees in her department to take positions in different parts of the company to help them learn the business. If they return to the IT department at a later point, they'll bring that deeper understanding with them, she says.

At the University of Oklahoma, the IT shop is like the IT groups at many other organizations -- it tends to "get distracted by the immediate," says Dennis Aebersold, CIO and vice president of IT. Nonetheless, he adds, "succession planning and organizational development will always be high on my agenda. Our development programs, combined with the coaching that supports those programs, make succession planning a continual process for us."

If you're still tempted to let succession planning slide to the bottom of your to-do list, consider this: IT organizations that encourage layers of succession planning and workforce development enjoy more success as a department, says Gartner's Morello. And Gartner's studies show that CIOs who emphasize strategic workforce development tend to be highly successful executives, while those who don't are much less successful, says Morello.

In other words, if you want to be a winning tech exec, you need a good team to back you up.

Expert Advice

Learn to Spot a Good Bench Player

One aspect of succession planning that isn't difficult is spotting up-and-comers in the organization, says Dennis Aebersold, vice president for IT and CIO at the University of Oklahoma.

"If you asked my team how I identify rising stars, they would all say one word: sparkle. How do you identify sparkle? You just know it," says Aebersold, who is in charge of the university's CIO Rising Stars program. That initiative aims to identify two individuals each year who, with exposure to IT leadership, could become leaders themselves.

These employees attend leadership team meetings and are involved in discussions about staff development, strategic planning, organizational priorities, and planning and building key relationships.

In addition, the university offers development programs for training and formal coaching, where IT professionals are appointed to lead peer coaching groups. And separately, the university's internship program gives student-employees hands-on experience in areas such as ERP, database management, mobile development, networking and security, says Aebersold.

Alwin Brunner, CIO at Heidrick & Struggles, an executive search firm in Chicago, says he has never groomed someone for advancement who turned out not to be interested. "You pick the people for leadership who are volunteering for new assignments. You can see it and feel it when you dialog with them," he says.

Future leaders "are passionate and hungry to learn more -- and not just about technology," agrees Aebersold. "These are people who constantly expand their experiences and are not afraid to step outside of their comfort zone."

-- Cara Garretson

Garretson is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at caragarretson@gmail.com.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

This story, "How to add depth to your IT team's bench" was originally published by Computerworld.

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