Who's Next?

What CIOs need to know about succession planning.

by / October 12, 2007

As baby boomers flock toward retirement, government faces a serious brain drain. Sixty percent of the federal work force will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. And in a study published in 1999, Samuel M. Ehrenhall, a senior fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, found that 40 percent of state and local government employees would be eligible to retire in the next 15 years.

With so many imminent departures, government CIOs should be thinking hard about how to recruit, cultivate and keep the talent they'll need to get through the coming years. When veteran employees leave, valuable knowledge goes with them.

Although CIOs are trying to preserve existing knowledge capital, they must prepare for demands that are only starting to emerge. "You've got to have the right mix of people, and you've got to have the right skills, not only to meet your current requirements, but also to be ready for the vision that you have of your future," said David Wennergren, deputy CIO at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and vice chair of the federal CIO Council.

Unfortunately many government executives - including many CIOs - aren't focusing hard enough on strategic work force development.

"The succession planning issue, according to our research, is not being taken as seriously by the public sector as it needs to be," said Rollie Waters, founder and president of Dallas-based Waters Consulting Group. In a survey of local government professionals Waters conducted this spring, nearly half the respondents said their organizations do a poor job of succession planning, and a third said the same of their particular departments.


Don't Leave It to Chance
Pension programs that encourage early retirement create one kind of succession planning challenge for government CIOs. Another stems from the fact that governments often are passive about cultivating talent, said Patrick Ibarra, co-founder and partner at Mejorando Group, a government human resources consultancy in Glendale, Ariz. If employees ask for extra training, the organization might provide resources, but it won't actively steer personnel toward professional development opportunities. "A lot is left to chance, and that's pretty risky," he said. "Some people will grow, and some won't."

Younger employees are notoriously impatient, Ibarra added, and won't stick around if they don't feel they're on an upward path. "Organizations don't have the luxury of allowing employees to gain knowledge on the job for 10 or 12 years and then promote them."

Competition from the private sector also challenges a public CIO's ability to recruit and retain valuable employees. Google recently opened an office in Ann Arbor, Mich., and its plan to hire 1,000 people could create new competition for Washtenaw County's IT department. "We can't pay what the private sector is going to pay, and we don't have stock options and those kinds of things," said David Behen, the county's deputy administrator and CIO.

Civil service regulations -- and the fact that some positions are subject to political appointment -- may also get in the way of succession planning. For example, except in states where a merit system prevails, the governor chooses the state CIO. "The challenge is that the governors normally, and often, don't know how to pick them," said Alabama CIO Jim Burns. The average tenure of a state government CIO - 22 months - underscores this problem, he said.

But even when CIOs can't pick their own successors, they can groom the next generation of leaders, said the DoD's Wennergren. "It's not only possible, it's absolutely crucial." He hired and trained the executive who stepped in to replace him as deputy CIO at the Department of the Navy, and later, as the Navy's CIO, when Wennergren took a series of promotions.

An executive who leaves can't be certain the heir-apparent will assume his or her place, Wennergren said, but that's beside the point. "They will be prepared for positions of greater responsibility, either within your organization or within other organizations."


Recruiting Comes First
One key to succession planning is to take the recruiting and hiring process seriously. "Many agencies think it's enough just to have an ad on their Web site," said Mejorando Group's Ibarra. But government departments should get much more involved, he said, forging relationships with colleges and universities, and working with the human resources department to develop recruiting methods that attract the best candidates.

Behen interviewed 25 people before hiring Washtenaw County's manager of applied technology. "I think the most important thing is that you hire the right people at the right time," he said. "And then you develop them."

Professional development gives employees opportunities to shake things up and try new things. "Stability can often lead to stagnation," cautioned Alabama's Burns. For technical workers, he said, development could mean taking courses or gaining experience with new technologies through small-scale pilots.

For managers, it might also mean job rotation. "Moving them around within the organization, I think, is very useful," Burns said. "It challenges them. It allows them to learn more about different pieces of the organization."

Executives should also give future leaders a chance to broaden their horizons through activities such as attending conferences or participating in cross-functional or interagency task forces, Ibarra said. "One of the best things executives can do is expose their staff members, provide them assignments that have meat to them, give them an opportunity to interact with their peers - the director's peers."

Washtenaw County maintains a large training budget for its entire IT staff, Behen said. "We also have a leadership academy. And then we also have, for selected individuals, professional coaches and mentors to help them develop their leadership skills."

Waters of Waters Consulting emphasizes the difference between skills - the "science" of a particular job - and crucial competencies, such as assertiveness and team building. His consultancy gives governments a tool for measuring competencies; then it sends a mentor who is strong in a specific area to work on that competency with a mentee. "When I show up to be a mentor to you, I'm not showing up with a grandiose, large back of tricks," he said. "I'm coming in with some specific task that I'm going to work on with you."

The DoD has developed a list of core competencies that IT professionals require and a road map for attaining them. Each employee has an individual development plan, and managers encourage employees to get the skills they need to reach their personal career goals. The department also provides scholarships for training and certification.

A CIO must be absolutely committed to career development, Wennergren said. "You as the leader have to be willing to make sure your employees are getting the training and educational opportunities they need to be world class."


Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs