Succession Planning for IT

Tablet with data

Amid a wave of CIO retirements, it is critical for information technology leaders in higher education to engage in proactive succession planning and talent development throughout their IT organizations. We asked Tim Chester, chief information officer at Pepperdine University, for his advice on developing leadership competencies within IT.

Invest in Developing More Than Just Technical Skills

Developing a successful IT organization and successful candidates for future leadership, Chester notes, involves prioritizing a set of competencies that are above and beyond technical skills. When hiring and promoting staff, most IT organizations can rely on a set of expectations around minimums having to do with years of experience and skill sets. However, it is also critical to set expectations around the mastery of competencies having to do with the delivery of service and engagement with users in improving your institution’s use of technology.

For example, Pepperdine University’s IT organization has two tiers of core competencies. The first tier consists of those skills necessary to provide good and consistent service:

  • Accountability
  • Initiative
  • Technical knowledge
  • Problem-solving
  • Teamwork

A second set identifies those skills that enable staff to “go the extra mile” in providing excellent service and engaging users in meaningful ways:

  • Analytical thinking
  • Communication for results
  • Process orientation
  • Ability to develop others
  • Ability to empower others
  • Change advocacy

These skills, Chester suggests, are critical to the advancement of the IT organization, and CIOs need to invest in hiring for and developing these competencies — not just technical skills — in order to ensure that when an IT leader leaves the organization, there is an informal succession pool of qualified staff ready to step into the vacant position.

Hire for Competencies, Train for Technical Knowledge

Chester cites the following hiring scenario. In the middle of a PeopleSoft implementation, the lead for the student information side of the project steps down, and the university has a vacancy to fill. The former employee was brilliant with the technology and well qualified — as a former PeopleSoft employee — but had struggled in engaging users, in communicating and problem-solving effectively.

The university decides to post the position as a mid-career position, and then searches for a candidate who will understand how student information is used among the organization’s client groups (registrar, admissions, etc.) and who will demonstrate competencies around communication, problem-solving, change advocacy, and who demonstrates drive, initiative, and quick learning. A deliberate decision is made to hire for these skills, rather than technical familiarity with PeopleSoft. The university brings in a young professional who has these competencies, and then trains her on the technology. Within 2 years, this professional has not only completed the implementation and achieved a promotion, but is also preparing the university for a rapid shift to direct lending.

“Technical knowledge is necessary but not sufficient,” Chester advises — and it is much easier to bring a professional up to speed on technical knowledge than it is to develop the competencies that are higher up the value curve.

Promoting from Within vs Hiring from Without

“It is very difficult to hire senior-level staff with these competencies, and it is also incredibly expensive. It is lower-cost to develop these competencies internally.”
Tim Chester, Pepperdine U

“What you never want to do,” Chester suggests, “is find yourselves in a circumstance where you have to hire someone at the higher rungs of your organization’s career ladder.” It is always going to be better to fill a leadership position with a staff member who knows your users, understands your organization, and has developed and demonstrated the leadership competencies that your organization prioritizes. When you lose a senior person and do not have anyone under them ready to be promoted, too often you will be required to hire external staff based on technical skills alone.

Not only is that less than ideal for your organization, it is also likely to prove more expensive. External hiring at the upper end of the IT career ladder nearly always entails paying the new hire more than you paid their predecessor. It will be more financially viable to establish a set of practices for hiring at the entry level and then developing your staff in-house. “Promoting from within is more salary-neutral,” Chester notes. “You give one of your staff a salary increase, recognition of their achievements, and increased responsibility.”

Foster the Competencies You Need

Chester advises, “Develop employees who can not only build, deploy, and deliver services, but who can also serve in advisory or consultative roles to solve problems with the users.” In practice, this means a careful consideration of shared governance within the IT organization.

“Don’t expect all your IT staff to take marching orders from the top. Create shared governance mechanisms designed to gear staff toward advisory and problem-solving roles, rather than merely transactional ones. Engage them in governance even from the entry level.”
Tim Chester, Pepperdine U

For example, Chester recommends establishing a variety of advisory councils within the IT organization. At Pepperdine University, for instance, training dollars are assigned by a council consisting of relatively low-level supervisors. Directors who may be above them in rank submit requests for professional development funds to this council. The council makes a list of the organization’s training needs, works with IT leadership to establish the priority of those needs, and then is empowered to allocate funds down that list of priorities.

Another example:

Rather than decide from the top on the core competencies you want to foster for your staff, have your staff identify and define these competencies. Bring in a consultant if needed, and run through a series of workshops that prompt staff to identify the differences between average and high performers (when controlling for technical skills and years of experience). This collaborative planning will not only foster the type of problem-solving and analytical thinking needed to advance your organization and to begin developing future leaders for your organization; it will also generate buy-in for the system of competencies and the re-envisioning of IT career ladders that the exercise is intended to establish.

“If you do this right, you can be a great organization known for developing its employees, engaging users around the effectiveness of technology, and controlling salary costs.”
Tim Chester, Pepperdine U