How to Add Depth to Your IT Team's Bench

The potential for losing tech talent is on the rise these days. Thanks to an uptick in IT hiring and an increase in retirements among baby boomers, your A-team employee lineup may be in danger.

Rather than getting caught without star performers, you must constantly think in terms of establishing bench depth and grooming the key players of tomorrow, CIOs and other experts say. But with so much on IT managers' plates these days, it can be hard to make succession planning a top priority.

Succession Planning 101

Definition: Succession planning ensures that vital positions in an organization have qualified internal candidates ready to step into key roles, reducing the risk of business disruption from talent loss.

Best practices: Think about positions two to three years into the future and tie succession planning to the organization's long-term goals. Companies typically do this for top executives, but they should also identify hard-to-replace technical people like IT specialists and engineers. Managers should assess whether candidates are ready to move up, identify any skill gaps, and provide training and/or special assignments to fill those gaps.

Tools: There are "talent management" software products that attempt to automate the process by giving managers a place to define job requirements, collect information about potential candidates and match potential candidates to higher-level jobs.

Source: Forrester Research Inc.

However, while "succession planning" or "bench strength" may not resonate much with IT managers, the concept of risk mitigation does, says Diane Morello, an IT management analyst at Gartner Inc.

When succession planning is put in terms of what's at risk -- the smooth operation and future development of IT systems that are indispensable to the company -- IT managers become more willing to make the time to identify rising stars and provide the necessary training, education and mentoring for tomorrow's leaders. And once that priority is established at the CIO level, Morello says, succession planning becomes a priority more readily throughout the rest of the department.

At Prudential Financial, CIO Barbara Koster is keenly aware of the risk to the IT department's credibility, should some key talent retire or be hired away.

"Succession planning in the IT department is critical, because you want to make sure the business is always prepared and protected. We can never be in a position where we're leaving the business worried about getting the support they need," says Koster, who manages some 2,200 tech employees in the U.S. "You want the business to feel very confident that you have it covered."

Succession planning is particularly important in high tech because the field is so specialized, CIOs say. The high level of technical expertise often required for IT jobs limits the potential talent pool when managers are looking to hire internally from another department.

And often IT leaders will find that a proportion of workers with a certain set of skills -- Web development, systems architecture, network design -- aren't interested in developing the nontechnical skills required for a management position.

"IT skills and people skills don't really go together, so it becomes hard to identify and develop those soft skills," says Dan McCarthy, a corporate leadership developer who writes the Great Leadership blog.

To be sure, high performers who don't want to move into management are still essential to the organization, and management experts say the key to retaining such employees is to ensure that they receive support and training in the latest technologies and are given interesting, challenging projects.

As for the employees who do show leadership potential, McCarthy and other industry watchers recommend that IT managers scout them out early in their careers and shepherd them along accordingly.

Next page: Identify the best talent, and set realistic expectations

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