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Retaining Key Talent Through Succession Planning

By Dave Willmer

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All CIOs depend on having skilled personnel to meet their departments’ objectives. However, when managers are focused on cutting costs and meeting service level requirements with fewer resources, retention can move to the back burner. After all, it’s easy to think that employees feel fortunate just to have jobs in this economy. If you’re not taking steps to retain top talent now, however, you’re likely to lose them when business conditions improve and you need skilled workers more than ever.

So, what can you do to keep employees satisfied when you have limited financial resources? One useful strategy is succession planning. Letting people know they’re being groomed for advancement can reinforce their value to your firm and boost loyalty. At the same time, you’re ensuring your team has the personnel in place for key management roles should they become available due to retirement, turnover and other factors.

Identify the right individuals

Start the process by noting the characteristics necessary in candidates for senior-level positions. Your list should include not only the requisite technical skills but, more important, the interpersonal abilities that an ideal candidate should possess, such as the ability to motivate others and build consensus.

You may be surprised at how your list of potential successors narrows as you undergo this exercise. The most obvious choices — your highest-ranking direct reports, for example — don’t always have the appropriate skill sets. Someone may be the go-to person on network security issues, for instance, but lack the tact and diplomacy to negotiate resource allocations with executive management.

Keep in mind that some abilities can be learned, while others cannot. Someone who isn’t known for thriving under pressure may not be able to adjust to the daily stress of a high-level management position.

Be clear about the requirements of the change

Once you’ve made your selections, let protégés know your intentions to gauge their interest in assuming higher-level positions. Each person will likely have questions about the responsibilities of the new role, time commitment involved and the impact the change will have on their personal life, for instance. Be honest about the demands of the position but, if someone seems hesitant, also do your best to explain why an upward move would be beneficial to them and the firm.

In addition, be clear about the potential transition time. If a manager won’t be retiring for several more years, let the successor know. At the same time, don’t delay with training. The unexpected can come up, and you may need the person to make the job change earlier than expected. Protégés also can play valuable roles as substitutes when senior managers are out of the office for an extended period of time.

Help them develop new skills

Chances are, an IT professional will require at least some training before being prepared to assume a senior-level position. Begin by including designated successors in key meetings and discussions. You want to give them plenty of opportunity to observe the roles and make sure they are well prepared to assume them. In addition, these interactions allow successors to start building key relationships within the firm and get a feel for the thought processes, discussions and judgments that come into play at higher levels.You’ll also want to give someone in line for a top management position additional opportunities to spearhead high-profile projects as a means of gaining visibility and honing leadership skills. And consider classes or seminars that would benefit the individual’s development. For instance, a future CTO might need to attend a seminar to better understand the intricacies of a new technology.

Pairing a high-potential employee with a person already in a senior role through a mentorship will ensure the protégé receives first-hand advice and guidance from someone who has walked the same path in the past.

As training progresses, make sure protégés are given plenty of feedback. They should have measurable goals, such as leading a key IT project or completing a course in public speaking by a particular deadline. You may want to consider offering small financial rewards, if appropriate, or other incentives to keep their motivation high.

Succession planning shows all employees that if they work hard, they have a chance of being promoted, which can have widespread benefits in retaining staff. Meanwhile, you’re ensuring you have the next generation of leadership ready when needed in your group. That’s a win-win strategy for any company.

Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multiplatform systems integration to network security and technical support. The company has more than 100 locations worldwide and offers online job search services on its web site.