The Replacements: Why a CIO Needs a Succession Plan

If you get hit by the proverbial bus today, who takes your place tomorrow? Better have a succession plan.

For months, Marie Zanavich had watched quietly from the sidelines as one of her senior IT executives negotiated a contract. With several million dollars hanging in the balance, the executive had overseen all the details, working closely with both vendor and counsel.

The contract was very real, and yet it was also part of a test: Zanavich, the chief information officer at UIL Holdings Corp., a regional electricity distributor based in New Haven, Conn., wanted to know if this particular executive -- one of three potential successors she had handpicked -- had the chops to eventually take the job.

This particular test ended earlier this year when the executive walked into Zanavich's office, contract in hand, and asked her to review and sign it. Without asking any questions or so much as flipping through the pages, Zanavich pulled out her pen. She laughs as she recalls the reaction: "Aren't you going to read it?" the executive protested.

Zanavich decided not to let on that she had been monitoring her protégé's every move through the company counsel and that she had been tracking all the contract revisions over email. "If you've already brought this to me for my review and you think it's ready for my review, then I'm going to sign it," she told the stunned executive.

But Zanavich didn't get the chance. The executive quickly took back the contract, promising to return it within a week.

That retreat didn't put the executive out of the running. (Indeed, the finished contract needed only minor revisions.) But Zanavich's technique sent a message: As in love and war, all is fair in succession planning. When a CIO is looking for a successor, she may resort to many strategies, including pushing her protégé -- literally, her protected one -- into the spotlight and then yanking away the training wheels just to see what will happen next.

Succession planning is a long and difficult process with no guarantees. When it works, the CIO and the company have peace of mind knowing that the IT department will keep the lights on and the overall IT strategy on course, even if the CIO is suddenly taken out of action by promotion, vacation or the proverbial bus. That's because the CIO has groomed a successor who knows not only the business but also the other people who run the business, since he has worked with them and earned their trust during the grooming process.

This was first published in October 2006

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