Succession planning for CIOs

Don't try to pick your replacement, current and former CIOs advised. Instead, strengthen the office so that any good successor can succeed.

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The agency CIO job has always seen relatively high turnover, but next year's hand-off to a new administration will kick that churn into high gear. Political appointees will be out, and even some career CIOs might well decide to retire before another transition, so it's already past time to be thinking about succession plans.

Former NASA CIO Linda Cureton said the transition was part of her calculus when she left government in 2013. She knew she didn't want to go through another presidential election and wanted give her successor some running room as well.

Yet as Cureton, current NASA CIO Renee Wynn, acting Office of Personnel Management CIO Lisa Schlosser and former General Services Administration CIO Sonny Hashmi all stressed during a May 23 panel discussion, incumbent CIOs should be focused on factors other than handpicking their replacements.

"My obligation as a CIO is to set up the organization so that you have the right skill sets, the right executives, the right managers," said Schlosser, the deputy federal CIO who is currently detailed to OPM. If that operational structure is sound, she added, talented individuals can advance and whomever the top agency executives choose will have a better chance of success.

"That's the best role you can play -- not just being in the room when your successor is chosen," she said.

Current CIOs are well positioned to know what their agencies need, however, and can make sure their bosses know what the trade-offs might be.

"Organizations go through their life cycles in their own ways," said Hashmi, who is now managing director for global government at Box. An agency might spend a few years pushing organizational change then settle into a period of steady-state operations. A change agent is critical for the first phase but would chafe in the second, he added.

"As agencies go through these cycles, there needs to be matchmaking to find the right CIO at the right time," he said. "If there's a mismatch...that's when bad things happen."

Cureton, who now runs her own consulting firm called Muse Technologies, agreed. "You have to pick the right leader for the right time."

Schlosser, however, said the right CIO can thrive throughout that life cycle if she or he has three core skill sets: general leadership, a solid grasp of budget and finance for the agency, and "the ability to continuously learn." The federal CIO community should seek to identify rising executives with that potential and help them reach it, she added.

"The job of a leader is to build other leaders," Schlosser said.

All four panelists, however, agreed that the next generation of CIOs must be even more immersed in the business processes and mission and less involved in actual IT. "This is a people job" was a frequent refrain.

And Hashmi said that evolving role can sometimes argue against promoting from within an agency's IT shop. "Sometimes you lose your best technologist and gain a mediocre manager by promoting someone just because it's the only way to reward them," he said.

Those technologists are vital and need to be rewarded, he added, but the government must "identify other opportunities to encourage people to move up in the organization while still really doing what they love." 

Cureton agreed, noting that "sometimes people aspire to be a CIO, but they don't aspire to do the things that it takes to be a CIO." Showing those individuals what's required, as well as other advancement options, should be part of a CIO's leadership responsibilities.

Although internal talent should be cultivated, the technology executives agreed, moves between agencies could produce better results than a steady rise within a single organization -- for the agency and the would-be CIO.

And Hashmi had some advice for any IT leader who wants to be considered for a CIO vacancy in the coming months.

"You should be able to do two things effectively at any time: show how what you do connects to the business and show how you measure whether you're doing a good job or not," he said. "If you can't do that based on data, based on fact and transparency, then you're going to find yourself in trouble."

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