Keeping IT leadership transitions on track

Bejamin Knopf and Kris Van Riper

In the past year, IT executive transitions in the public sector have occurred at a particularly rapid rate. In the 15 Cabinet departments, six CIOs or acting CIOs have been on the job for less than a year, and that pattern is similar among independent agencies.

Leadership transitions are a high-risk time in the life of every executive. CEB analyzed data from more than 2,200 matched pairs of transitioning leaders and their managers from the public and private sectors to uncover how well transitioning leaders performed during a change.

The results showed significant cause for concern. The good news is that only a small proportion — 2.5 percent — of transitions fail spectacularly. The bad news is that it’s not just the high-profile flameouts that are a problem. An alarming 46 percent of all transitioning leaders underperform during their transitions. They survive but don’t thrive, and they reach full productivity an average of nine months later than their higher-performing peers.

Furthermore, for those less-successful transitions, the ripple effect from the leader’s underperformance creates significant risk and cost for the entire organization, with damage that includes lagging employee productivity, disengagement, attrition and lost business opportunities.

Government IT executives face additional challenges. Acute fiscal pressures and shrinking budgets mean new leaders must quickly deliver cost-efficiency improvements through consolidation and transitions to shared services. At the same time, IT must deliver improved speed and responsiveness to business partners who view technology as a critical enabler of mission agendas.

Given the current environment, ensuring successful leadership transitions is more important than ever. What should transitioning leaders and their agencies concentrate on to drive successful performance from the start?

Provide long-term support. The organizations with the most successful leadership transitions deliver support strategies across an extended period, not just during the first 100 days of a new executive’s tenure.

Engage stakeholders. Because IT is increasingly becoming a strategic advisory function, new IT executives should quickly be able to answer questions such as: “Who are my key stakeholders, and what are their perceptions of IT’s effectiveness?” Building relationships and identifying the expectations of the senior executive team are crucial steps in developing a strategic outlook for IT. However, successful transitions require active participation from managers, business partners and direct reports.

Take a strategic view. Progressive organizations develop a strategic enterprise view of IT to help ensure informed decisions. The new PortfolioStat guidelines require updates to agencies’ Information Resources Management Strategic Plans, which underscores the need for IT executives to link goals to mission strategy, ensure they stay relevant, make assumptions clear and include a process for re-evaluating strategies as assumptions change.

Measure performance. Instituting IT performance measurement can drive fact-based decision-making, provide resource allocation insight, and serve as a tool to communicate and deliver continuous improvement in IT.

Plan for workforce changes. Rather than planning to address attrition, IT leaders should prepare for the emergence of new, critical IT-related roles across the next several years. Developing a multi-year outlook for the IT workforce will provide clearer direction on how to identify and address skills gaps that could affect achievement of strategic goals.

Modernize the IT portfolio. Successful management of the technology portfolio depends on the ability of IT executives to transition the current environment to support emerging government mandates such as data center consolidation and cloud computing.

By focusing on these key priorities, new IT leaders are more likely to perform solidly in their roles, support their business partners and teams, and contribute to the achievement of mission objectives for their agencies.

About the Authors

Kris van Riper is a managing director at CEB.

Benjamin Knopf is a senior analyst at CEB.

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