Succession Planning: Why IT Leaders Should Groom Their Replacements

To avoid a disruption when Corpus Christi, Texas, CIO Michael Armstrong retires, his successor is being trained before his departure -- and in 2015, Michigan plans to launch a leadership academy program to groom internal talent.

by / October 23, 2014
Corpus Christi, Texas, City Hall Google Street View
Corpus Christi, Texas, City HallGoogle Street View

Government lives and dies by its policies and procedures -- but sometimes it’s best to just ignore them.

When Corpus Christi, Texas, City Manager Ronald Olson learned by way of casual conversation that his CIO, Michael Armstrong, was considering retirement, he likely experienced a bit of panic -- and for good reason: The city is midway through an ERP replacement, a community development implementation and a utility billing project, to name just a few projects.

Armstrong, who counts the number of open IT projects as “insane,” is an experienced CIO who has spent seven years learning his city’s quirks. And finding, negotiating with, hiring and acclimating a replacement was a process the city guessed would take about a year -- a disruption categorized as “unacceptable.” So instead of following the usual procedures outlined by human resources, Olson told Armstrong to find his replacement so they could hire her directly and train her to take over his position before his departure.

And that’s exactly what has happened.

Hiring the Next CIO

In June, the city hired Belinda Mercado as deputy director of Municipal Information Systems (MIS), who will, barring unforeseen events, replace Armstrong when he retires, possibly near the end of 2015. Mercado served as IT director in McAllen, Texas, for 11 years, where she headed many of the same technology projects as Corpus Christi, such as Wi-Fi, ERP and fiber.

Though succession planning is normal in the private sector, government often finds itself at a loss as officials come and go every few years -- and everyone else wonders what went wrong. And Corpus Christi’s plan is working so far, Armstrong said, despite initial resistance from HR.

“I’m sure it didn’t sit well with that person -- and it probably shouldn’t, because we ignored all the HR regulations that normally apply to a hire,” said Armstrong. “In this case, we not only brought Belinda in, but did not have an extensive interview process." Mercado came out one day and talked to the city manager and one other person, Armstrong said, and once she agreed she would take the job, he and Olson decided it wasn't worth going through the motions -- or the time or expense -- of a national recruitment.

Finding the Right Person

Armstrong said that when he met Mercado for the first time, something about her clicked in his mind -- and she was one of the first people he thought of when he was charged with finding his replacement.

"There is a pretty small pool of really well grounded and knowledgeable IT folks out there who can actually be serious leaders in the organization,” Armstrong said. “So I think if you’re like most of us, you may know one or two of those folks, because you have to go looking for them -- and it’s very difficult to recruit them through an ad.”

Finding a replacement was not a matter of finding someone with technical aptitude, because that’s common, Armstrong said – it was about finding a person with the right experience, mindset and attitude. And it wasn’t until Mercado started with the city that the two recognized how similar they were when it came to the big picture, which both say has made the transition easier.

“It’s very interesting in how we’re so similar,” Mercado said. “It’s actually kind of eerie, because in our profession, people have a lot of different philosophies and approach things differently, and I see it in all my different counterparts in different cities. Ours is so similar that it’s really strange. I haven’t learned as much as I thought I would because we’re so similar. Yet it’s been very easy to learn and catch on very quickly, because I know exactly how he would handle a situation.” 

Originally assigned to head two of the three divisions within the MIS department, Mercado has, since her hire, instead branched out to learn more of the organization, attending meetings, connecting with department heads and learning how her new organization is different from the old one.

"As it turned out, we did not formalize this [approach], and instead I shadowed him for the first month and attended meetings with him," she said. "We have a heavy project load and I was also given a few projects to oversee."

With this approach, Mercado said she was able to become familiar with the entire organization rather quickly. “Splitting up the work isn’t even the word,” she said. “He’s just trusting me that if there’s an issue that needs to be taken care of and it needs to be somebody in the IT side who takes the lead on it, he just gives it to me.”

Mercado estimated that this approach is favorable to the usual hiring process. “Almost in a behind-the-scenes mode, I’ve been able to observe what’s going on and really spend more thinking time as opposed to firefighting mode,” she said. “I’ve been able to do much more than I’d ever be able to do if I was brand new on the job and had to do everything.”

An Ideal Scenario

The way they’re planning for Armstrong’s departure in Corpus Christi is the ideal way to handle the departure of a critical IT leader, said Michigan CIO David Behen. “If you can work that out in any kind of organization, public or private, that’s ideal. I think the average stay for a state CIO is like 26 months now, which is actually going up, so I see some stability there, but [the turnover rate] can be disruptive.”

Though many government IT organizations find themselves disrupted by executive turnover, particularly at the state level where most CIOs are appointed by the governor, there are ways of managing those departures, Behen said – and it starts with developing talent internally.

In that vein, Michigan is now developing a new strategic plan, part of which includes the creation of a professional development and leadership academy program that could launch mid-2015, Behen said.

“That’s about as close as we’re going to get to any kind of succession planning,” he added. “We can build the skills of internal folks so when these executive positions open, we’ll have some viable candidates internally to take over those roles.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.