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Wendy Pfeiffer isn't looking to leave her job as CIO at Nutanix, yet she already identified employees who could take over for her at the San Jose, Calif.-based software company when the time comes.
Pfeiffer said she feels obligated to have CIO succession planning in place. "I'm interested in ensuring that I take care of my company and my team. I've always had that interest to make sure the team is well understood and well represented," she said.
As technology became central to reaching organizational objectives in the past decade, the importance of the CIO role increased as well. As such, multiple executive and management leaders said organizations should have detailed plans on how they'd handle the departure of their CIOs as well as other senior IT leaders.
"The CIO is a critical role, so good governance would suggest that every organization have a succession plan for their CIO," said Eric Pliner, CEO of YSC Consulting, a provider of leadership strategy services.
Despite the value that Pfeiffer and Pliner place on the task, studies have found that most organizations don't do a good job of succession planning. A 2018 study from ATD research found that only 35% of organizations have a formalized succession planning process. An earlier Deloitte study found an even more alarming lack of preparation: Although 86% of responding executives rate leadership talent as an urgent or important issue, only 13% said their organizations do an excellent job at leadership development.
"Many organizations will say it's critical to have a [CIO] succession plan, but we have found that most aren't doing it," said Hillary Ross, senior partner, managing director and leader of the IT practice at the global executive search firm WittKieffer.
According to Ross, small and midsize organizations are more likely to forgo the exercise than their larger counterparts, and many organizations are likely to have succession plans for CEOs but not CIOs.
Some experts blame time constraints, saying that many CIOs and their executive colleagues are so busy with the rest of their responsibilities that CIO succession planning gets pushed aside. They also said some executives believe that their investments in grooming internal successors would be wasted money, as those professionals would be more likely to leave for CIO jobs elsewhere.
Despite such thinking, they stressed that CIO succession planning be a part of their key objectives. "It needs to be a deliberate priority for the organization," Ross said.
Benefits of internal candidates
Organizations can benefit from identifying internal candidates in advance, according to recruiters and executive advisors. "The preference is almost always to promote and hire from within if there's the right candidate," said Ryan Sutton, district president at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology.
Pliner agreed, saying that internal executive candidates already know the company, its priorities and its strategies, as well as the industry. "Promoting someone from [within] the company helps limit the learning curve," he said.
However, Pliner said hiring from within is only an advantage if the internal candidates have been well prepared for the job by being given the opportunities to learn the needed skills and to develop the requisite partnerships and insights needed to be CIO.
"Companies often default to say they want someone who has held the CIO job before, but the key is getting someone who has managed similar situations before," he added.
Even when a potential successor isn't ready to take over as CIO, experts said benefits still remain. For example, Sutton said organizations with strong CIO succession planning are better at recruiting and retaining top talent, as candidates at all levels see the business as a place where they can grow and advance their careers.
Moreover, he and others said organizations with suitable CIO succession planning are not only able to more quickly fill the position when the CIO leaves, but they're better able to fill the position with someone with the mix of skills and characteristics needed to be successful at that time because they've identified what they want in a candidate. Their careful CIO succession planning means they get the right fit, not just an expedient replacement.