What are the challenges for when it comes to succession planning, and what can IT leaders do to overcome them?

Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data

October 27, 2020

6 Min Read

Having spent over 20 years in the C-suite, I’ve observed a natural dislike for succession planning. Companies don’t like to talk about it because it’s a “dark” topic that focuses on replacing people. Second, succession planning is a threatening topic. People start looking over their shoulders to see who’s in line to replace them. Third, succession is a planning topic that always gets pushed to the rear while the strategic and operational challenges of the day take the front seat.

Earlier this year, Levenfeld Perlstein, a business law firm, confirmed this. Based on survey information, it wrote that “20% of publicly traded companies and a third of privately held companies acknowledge they do not have a viable succession plan.”

Succession planning has become much more urgent with the global pandemic. We don’t know who among our co-workers might catch the virus, or even if they will overcome it. We also have staff who might have to endure prolonged quarantines away from work because they’ve been exposed to the virus. Suffice it to say that companies need “bench strength” to navigate through the pandemic, and to ensure that key talent is always there to run the company. In IT, developing that bench strength can be especially challenging.

The barriers

We have technical gurus in IT for databases, networks, systems infrastructure, telephony and communications, storage, applications -- the list goes on. In each area, these are the “go to” people that junior staff members rely on when difficult problems and questions arise. A 2017 McKinsey study, showed these top performers were as much as 800% more productive than lower performers, so when top performers stress out, burn out or get sick, they are difficult to replace.

They also might not want to be replaced.

“We expected that if [survey] respondents perceived their colleagues to be dependent on them, they would be more willing to share knowledge and less likely to hide it. Much to our surprise, we found the opposite,” wrote Marylene Gagne, Amy Wei Tan, Bo Zwang, Khee Seng Benjamin Ho, Katrina Hosszu and Christine Soo, in a report on succession planning for the Harvard Business Review. “When people perceived that others depended on them, they felt pressured into sharing knowledge… and this in turn promoted knowledge hiding. This could be because frequent requests from colleagues created more demands on their time -- quite a rare commodity these days. People often chose to prioritize their own tasks over sharing knowledge and even pretended not to have the information being requested.”

If you excel in a technical discipline, you’re also mindful that your technical expertise (and whatever you keep as your own proprietary knowledge) is the ticket to your earning power and your value to the  company, especially if you don't aspire to management. These technical skills, honed through years of experience, become a “little black book” of tricks of the trade that are closely guarded and may not readily be shared.

So, what are the challenges for IT teams when it comes to succession planning, and what can you do to overcome them? Here are three problems in that path to IT succession planning, and some advice to help get on track to create viable outcomes:

1. No time to train because of project loads

The COVID-19 crisis has left many companies “strapped” for workforce resources. This has prevented succession planning steps from being taken, such as training or cross-training personnel, so they can provide back up for top tier functions and roles.

One of my first IT management roles was as an IT training director in a software company. I quickly realized that getting project managers to take on people in “learning" mode was highly unpopular when there were critical deadlines to meet. Also inadequate were the seminars and online courses that were more theoretical and hypothetical than “real world” in the technical skills they were aspiring to teach.

The approach I developed was to place junior “skills learners” directly in the project trenches. They were assigned to non-critical path tasks that allowed them to learn by doing real work. Project managers liked this because project work was getting done that normally would have been left behind. This also enabled managers to save the time of their most valuable personnel so those staff members could stick with the highest priority work. Junior learners were moved up to tasks of greater complexity as they learned. This was a win-win for everyone.

2. Non-participation from technical experts

Getting junior untrained staff members in the trenches only works if someone on a project team with expertise in the area is willing to be an on-staff trainer and/or mentor.

This takes us to the second IT challenge: enlisting technical experts in training and cross- training efforts.

While there are some technical experts who prefer to keep their "books of tricks" to themselves, there are also those who just don't have the patience or the ability to teach or mentor.

The best approach for engaging technical gurus with mentorship of junior staff is to identify those technical experts who would enjoy mentoring. Often, these are the more senior members of the staff who are proud of their career skills, are secure in their positions, and may even be looking toward retirement.

3. Getting buy-in to succession planning

Few people enjoy succession planning because it’s a dark topic, and it’s human nature to shy away from it out of a fear that you’ll lose your job, or just out of a general feeling that you'd rather get back to the work of the day. But there are a few ways to take the sting out of it.

First, incorporate succession planning into your IT strategic plan, just as you would incorporate budget planning and project planning. When you revisit the topic as a subset of your strategic plan each year, succession planning becomes more of an expected area to address, and staff gets used to it. The succession planning should include everyone -- from the CIO on down.

Second, if you are a CIO or other person in a major IT leadership role, the IT culture should value each employee, and also acknowledge the truly irreplaceable contributions of the highest contributors. No amount of cross-training can replace this -- and staff members need to know that.

Follow up with InformationWeek’s Team Building and Staffing section.


About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett

President of Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm. Prior to founding her own company, she was Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturer in the semiconductor industry.

Mary has business experience in Europe, Japan, and the Pacific Rim. She has a BS degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MA from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years. She is listed in Who's Who Worldwide and in Who's Who in the Computer Industry.

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