In a previous life helping IT companies prepare business continuity plans, Katy Tynan picked up the phone one day and could hear fire alarms blaring in the background.
The caller was a prospective client who was still on the fence about a business continuity plan proposal.
"They hadn't made it a budget priority," said Tynan, now a principal analyst, employee experience with Forrester, in an interview with CIO Dive. "They were calling me because their building was on fire, and filling up with smoke, and they wanted me to tell them what to do."
Whether it's fires, pandemics or a recession, leaders must keep the business running seamlessly. Advanced preparation extends to leadership decisions too. In the event of sudden tech leadership departures, organizations need to have a plan in place to continue to execute on short- and long-term tech goals.
"Business continuity planning is called planning because you're supposed to do it before everything goes to hell in a handbasket," said Tynan. "The same thing is true about succession planning."
Sudden departure of IT leaders can put a company's tech goals in jeopardy. Without leaders in place, businesses must rely on the availability of knowledge and prepared transition roadmaps to successfully carry operations forward.
To prepare for transition in the tech side of the house, organizations should:
- Groom a tech leader in waiting
- Keep the C-suite aware of what tech investments are underway
- Reevaluate tech goals in the context of the departure
The hot tech seat
No matter the industry, leaders are angling their organizations toward modernization, hoping to reap revenue boosts from plugging in new technology. Seasoned tech execs, as a result, are a hot commodity.
"It's usually new job opportunities," that lure away sitting technology leaders, Tynan said. Tech can be a "transient" labor market, one where high turnover and competition are a constant.
For the C-suite, preparing for a transition in tech leadership reflects trends in executive tenure. While CEOs stay in their roles for 6.9 years on average, the average tenure of a CIO is 4.6 years, according to an analysis by consulting firm Korn Ferry.
Frequent job hopping is a trademark of the tech workforce. The tech industry's annual employee turnover rate is 13.2%, compared to 9.7% in the oil and energy industry, or 9.4% in healthcare and pharmaceutical space, according to a 2018 analysis by LinkedIn.
How well a company overcomes a sudden tech leader departure depends on how informed leaders were kept of ongoing initiatives prior to the departure, said Kumar Krishnamurthy, principal at PwC Strategy&, in an interview with CIO Dive.
"It's absolutely important to have more than one person making decisions and controlling the purse strings" on a project, he said. If needed, these interim leaders are able to ensure processes can move forward smoothly.
Ahead of time, companies need to identify an interim figure who can step in and keep the organization moving, according to Krishnamurthy.
"Usually the answers are self evident," he said. "But not in all cases."
Interim figures coming from within the organization can step into the role with an added layer of value. Already familiar with the core business and company culture, groomed in-house talent should be able to move projects forward while aligning with business goals.
Organizations need to have transparent conversations about business priorities, keeping all leadership informed of how IT infrastructure operates, Tynan said.
"Years ago, in the IT industry particularly, your job security was based on your ability to hide the things that you did and your knowledge so no one could do what you were doing, therefore you could not get fired," she said.
It is becoming clearer to the industry that the health of the business depends on making knowledge available, particularly the data and infrastructure that supports technology plans.
"A good, smart executive always has a 'lieutenant' in every project that can pick up the pieces of that project if they became unavailable, which happens," Tynan said. Clear, documented structures for keeping data and organizational information on key projects will let successors easily pick-up the mantle amid leadership change.
C-suite and digital transformation
Major tech transformation efforts ideally involve the C-suite as a whole, earning the commitment from board of directors both financially and through ownership.
An unforeseen change of tech leaders can mean more than just disruption. It might also be an opportunity to reassess organizational goals put forth by previous leadership.
When a new CIO is announced by a company, they often arrive at a role with specific outcomes and directives in mind, sometimes assigned directly by the CEO.
Once a leader departs, it's up to the organization to evaluate what triggered that departure, and what impact it may have on previously set goals.
"To some extent somebody new stepping in, regardless of the scenario, will have to put their own fingerprints on their strategy," said Krishnamurthy. Whether or not the company decides to shift gears on its tech strategies will depend on the circumstances and the terms of an executive's departure.