Smoke and mirrors: The fallacy of technology succession planning?

Heather Barnes, Sam Bell, Kersty Bletso 1 May 2024

The landscape

63% of FTSE 100 CIO/CTOs are external appointments, which is interesting given that one of the most common themes in building out CIO’s teams is that talent must have succession potential.

So why aren’t more group CIOs grown internally and why does it matter? Leathwaite spoke to Group CIOs/CTOs, HR leaders and non-executive directors to better understand the challenges faced.


Many of our conversations can be reduced to a lack of confidence from both technology leaders and the companies they work for in their leadership.

From a business perspective, potential CIOs/CTOs are not viewed as having the requisite breadth of experience sought after by the firm, are often viewed as an unknown quantity by the Board and can be seen as a risk when compared to a “proven” external CIO. As one CIO said, “Why would my board trust a first time CIO with an £8bn organisation?”

From a technology leadership perspective, and CIOs/CTOs are seen as failing to elevate the profile of their potential successors, meaning that the prospective candidates are not always well known or trusted by the wider business and, therefore, the Board votes to search externally.

Equally, most non-executive directors are over ten years out of an executive career, which is an “ice age” in technology terms. They often do not understand the function, nor know exactly what they want from their CIO/CTO. Attaining more technology representation in the Boardroom to help elevate and drive greater rigour and understanding of the topic and its leadership is important to change this dynamic. A FTSE CIO shared that he works closely with the Chief People Officer to drive a digital and data education programme for the Board, elevating the Board’s knowledge and understanding in this area, which, in turn positively impacts their relationship and perception of technology talent.

In parallel, as one non-executive commented, there is “no normal left anymore,” we live in the “never normal” – technology is too dynamic for businesses to keep up from a talent perspective. The pace of change within technology is relentless and “unless you have a very stable BAU organisation, predicting what you need in two to three years’ time is impossible as the pace of change is too great.” therefore, any prospective CIOs are unlikely to have been skilled for the next iteration of technology change, simply by dint of having been in the company itself (unless they actively build external networks and knowledge).

The talent

CIOs/CTOs are generally hired with a specific mandate and build their team accordingly. When that is delivered, the team may lack the skills for the next wave of change and are thus discarded in favour of perceived external talent. In parallel, when transformation strategies go wrong, or do not live up to expectation, the whole team can be reputationally tarnished.

Do businesses truly hire for succession or is it, as one CIO commented that, “hiring for succession is a complete fabrication to land the talent we want”?

Conversely, some CIOs/CTOs are confident in their succession planning but openly acknowledge that it is unlikely their Board would be aligned to this view, signposting a misalignment in Board CIO/CTO expectations, and understanding.

So, what must change? CIOs/CTOs must continue to use language that the business can truly understand, value creation and revenue generation versus HANA, DevOps, and apps. They need to pass that skill to their team. Being able to navigate both polished Board presenter with technical capability is a skill many perspective CIOs/CTOs do not possess.

A repeated comment from both HR leaders and Board members are that prospective CIOs are not well networked within their own businesses; building strong relationships and being seen as a leader is important when it comes to reputation and trust.

Prospective internal candidates are often seen as lacking the necessary breadth and commercial acuity needed to successfully fulfil the number one leadership role. CTOs/CIOs need to focus on building their commercial toolkit, and accompanying internal and external networks, which will allow them to attain the top job and thrive in it.

Planning for succession

One CPO declared that “succession planning is still too often a paper exercise to satisfy a process.” If organisations’ genuinely want to create talent pipelines, technology leaders and their HR partners need to collectively take more ownership of the succession process.

A common theme across those we interviewed who felt comfortable with their succession pipelines was that they had proactively put in place structured development paths for their key positions. These were multifaceted, combining practical experiences with supplementary leadership training/coaching. They included specific mechanisms to give aspiring leaders greater Board/investor exposure, and they were reviewed multiple times per year to monitor progress and course correct or iterate, as necessary. Succession candidates were also benchmarked against the external market to instil confidence in the stakeholder community that the right person is sitting in the seat.

Technology teams move faster from a change perspective than other functions which coupled with a rapidly changing macro environment will always create acute short terms needs in talent. Regardless, firms need to stop hiring only for the present, and build longer term succession planning support that spans three to five years. Leaders need to be assessed on their commercial acuity and stakeholder management and influencing skills even if the immediate role is more technical in nature. A culture of continuous learning needs to be fostered and developed from the grassroots to the very top of an organisation ensuring there is time and space for potential successors to grow.

Genuine succession planning requires rigour and discipline, longer timescales, and more structure around it – which it transpires few firms have. CIOs/CTOs need to keep up to date with the external landscape, be constantly reskilling and looking at the horizon; few are given the space to do this when set against the challenges of their day job but without a constant watch on the external environment they will invariably be seen as less compelling when compared to external appointments.

Internal succession must also be validated by external comparison. If the prevailing perception is that external options will offer more value than home grown talent, then the leaders who have benefitted from structured development programs must be benchmarked against the external environment to provide comfort the right decision is being made. Many of those we spoke to stressed the importance of running external searches or mapping exercises to properly illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of a potential CIO successor.


Both businesses and technology leadership need to review their approach to succession planning. Taking time, applying structure/rigour, giving broader exposure, giving space to grow, and gaining a better understanding of both commercial levers and technology itself are critical for potential CIOs/CTOs to attain the top role within their current firms.

Ironically, the tenure of many CIOs is relatively brief, so either way technology leadership is still facing challenges. But that’s another topic of conversation.

Heather Barnes

Heather is a Partner in our global Technology & Digital practice, leading on senior technology, digital and data leadership roles across the consumer, technology, life sciences, energy, and industrials space. Her depth of knowledge and experience over the past eighteen…

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Sam Bell

Sam is a Director in Leathwaite’s core Technology & Operations practice in the London office, focusing on C-Suite leadership positions within listed, and high-growth companies. Prior to Leathwaite, Sam was a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a…

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Kersty Bletso

Kersty is a partner in Leathwaite’s global executive interim business, based in our London office. She is focused on appointing exceptional senior interim talent that drives transformation and value creation, across all sectors and industries, enabling clients to benefit from…

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