Overcoming succession planning challenges

India's explosive growth has created a lot of opportunity for rising IT managers to find new jobs elsewhere. Three CIOs offer advice for creating a succession planning strategy that paves a path for top internal talent.

By Yuga Chaudhari, Principal Correspondent, SearchCIO.in Succession planning has been a sensitive subject for most CIOs. As Sumit Chowdhury, CIO of Reliance Communications, India's second largest mobile operator, puts it, "Succession planning is something CIOs really don't want to talk about. It's in the mindset – you know it...

needs to be done, but no one wants to state it."

The unwillingness to openly discuss succession planning does not necessarily translate to its assuming lower priority in an IT environment. "IT is a high-skilled area, and having a second in command is very crucial. It is necessary to have someone who can make decisions on your behalf or discuss alternatives for better IT implementations," says Rajesh Uppal, the chief general manager of IT for Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. Uppal is well aware of issues related to succession planning, having spent more than 24 years with India's No. 1 car manufacturer.

Arun Gupta, the group CTO of Shoppers Stop Ltd, one of India's oldest retail chains, feels that having a second line of leadership is important for the organization as it helps the enterprise manage gaps in the event of an exit. "Also, for the CIO to move up the hierarchy, he has to set up a strong team to manage in his absence. This is where the second line leadership becomes important," Gupta says.

The process of succession planning

Different organizations follow different processes for identifying the right candidate. Shoppers Stop follows a formal process based on the person's performance and potential. "Such capable individuals are given opportunities to demonstrate the latent potential and [are] coached and mentored to take on additional roles and responsibilities," says Gupta.

Maruti is yet another organization that has a strong performance management system in place for its employees, which is used by the organization's IT team. The system helps identify the right successor based on a methodology evaluating performance and potential. Apart from this, it is also important to see whether the selected employee has the right leadership skill-set to handle a team. "Strong technological understanding, customer orientation, inter-personal skills and innovativeness are some of the key aspects," says Uppal.

Grooming the candidate

Once a candidate is identified, it is important to expose him to all the business aspects he may be unfamiliar with, but are important from an IT strategy standpoint. This includes attending business critical management meetings.

Grooming also requires thorough training on various leadership aspects to facilitate the evolution from techie to a business-savvy technocrat. "If required, candidates are sent for trainings outside India. We try to push the right people ahead and expose them to the business side of IT. It's essential to make leaders out of them and teach the leadership etiquette," says Reliance Communications' Chowdhury.

Challenges to succession planning

The process of identifying and grooming a candidate is not as easy as it sounds. Usually, CIOs find it challenging to make the succession progress successfully with consent from the rest of the team. Uppal says that potential and performance should be the main criteria for selection -- the person does not necessarily have to be at a higher designation.

Internal competition may create problems and affect team spirit. Hence CIOs have to carefully manage this to ensure healthy competition does not impact the team's performance.

At Reliance Communications, executives focus on qualities such as the right skills, attitude and team management before a candidate is taken to the next level. "He should also know the process of how to get the job done from his subordinates. The common Indian mindset is to look at seniority. However, leadership cannot be judged just on the basis of seniority. We need maturity to reach to that level," says Chowdhury.

In such scenarios, internal competition may create problems and affect team spirit. Hence CIOs have to carefully manage this to ensure healthy competition does not impact the team's performance. At the end of day, there should be a credible and critical selection process. A transparent model is essential to let the team know why a particular person was selected for the position. Right policies which mention key result areas should be put in place to document a reward model.

When it comes to the communication process, it's essential to keep the process transparent and open. These measurement metrics portray an accurate picture to potential candidates.

According to CIOs, key challenges on the succession planning front are mostly related to organizational culture and the talent management process' execution.

Attrition is also one of the biggest obstacles in the Indian scenario. According to Gupta, the "India growing" story has also resulted in people shifting jobs. High attrition levels have adversely impacted the succession planning process, since most high-potential candidates find it easy to seek alternative opportunities in case timelines do not match their expectations.

Maruti's Uppal feels that attrition should not stop someone from developing an internal candidate. CIOs can manage attrition with fair and transparent policies, he said. Chowdhury agrees: "Groom employees if you want a lower attrition rate. That's why our attrition rate is very low at about 12%-14%, as compared to other players in the industry."

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