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What to Do When Your CIO Leaves

By Mark Gianturco, CIO on 12/17/20 8:00 AM

Maintaining continuity, both tactically and strategically, is enough of a challenge without the disruption of a leader’s departure. With the ubiquity of technology today, the job functions of a CIO or CTO cut across all areas of a company. Therefore, it is critical that a company understands how to maintain momentum and protect against potential troubles when this position is replaced.

When technology executives leave their companies, they take valuable processes, strategy, and knowledge along with them. In 2020 and beyond there continues to be increased value in maintaining and improving a strong security posture.

There are also new risks as our workforce moves to a more comprehensive remote work paradigm. Add to this the penalties and corporate survival threats from security breaches, and the value of a detailed understanding of the departing executive’s security plan (including corporate strengths, weaknesses, and initiatives) becomes very clear.

In order to eliminate these risks, as well as many other significant ones that we will examine in detail, it is extremely important to be able to bridge the gap between executive departure and onboarding of a replacement. This is done by ensuring that all critical knowledge is maintained by the company. This is in addition to assessing potential problem areas (that may currently be unknown) for the executive team to assess.

Based on decades of real-world experience helping to plan and execute technology executive transitions, at iDS we have developed and introduced a virtual CIO (vCIO) service. Our vCIO service provides a formal framework to assess all technology aspects, reduce risks, ensure continuity, and provide an onboarding platform so that a new technology executive can hit the ground running.

Whether you’re ensuring a smooth transition for new technology leadership or need to execute on a critical enterprise IT project, having a framework to ensure success is a must. It is often difficult for internal corporate resources to clearly identify all risks to success, including limiting factors, environment issues, co-dependencies, organizational factors, and strategic concerns, although recognizing these and including them in a formal planning process is needed to ensure success of mission-critical projects.

In this blog post, the first of a two-part series, we break down some of the pillars that your organization needs to examine and capture when your CIO leaves – and how a vCIO can provide expertise and continuity during this critical period.

Management of People

CIOs don’t just manage technology – they manage people. Understanding the characteristics of your IT team, including high, low, and mid-level performers, and single points of failure is necessary to understand how the team may need to evolve. Laying out this terrain clearly may also point to roles that need to be added, removed, or otherwise adjusted for optimal performance.

Keep in mind that when CIOs leave, you not only lose critical functionality, you also have a possible risk of losing more resources. In the discovery phrase, internally identifying employees who represent additional departure risks is crucial, as well as maintaining external relationships with vendors.

Management of Processes

From a tactical perspective, the layers of process that go into documenting and supporting your company’s deliverables can seem like a waste of time and resources. However, maintaining a lightweight process that ensures maintainability and extensibility of projects has significant benefits over completing projects on an ad hoc basis. Although this may seem to be a “grass is green” observation, in practice there are often basic quality and efficiency steps that become neglected over time.

Carefully assess the processes that your departed CIO has put in place around communication and execution. For instance, does your team have tools in place to effectively share information and track progress? Are there too many meetings? Not enough? Balancing structure with the demands of reducing time-to-market can help you avoid scope creep, functionality ambiguity, integration problems, as well as many other hurdles.

Management of Products

Ongoing product development, including product integrations and maintained deployed software, should be assessed during any transition. Questions to ask during this period include: Is there a clear vision for development timelines? Are there mechanisms in place and metrics to monitor that will help keep your team on track? Are priorities unchanged from those put in place when execution began? Is there any domain-specific knowledge that was held by the departing executive?

Regardless of the services that your organization offers or the industries it serves, understanding where the different components of your product suite are in their life cycles will help you ensure that nothing goes overlooked.


Between cloud technology and the many federal regulations that guide its implementation, cybersecurity has never been a more pressing concern. While companies often see maintaining compliance as a necessary evil, it is important to understand the nuances of regulations and requirements. In order to avoid breaches, penalties, and other problems, it is also important to understand your stated versus actual security posture.

When evaluating your IT processes, pay particular attention to those involving compliance. The three areas of physical, logical, and administrative security must all be assessed to ensure that your system is protected, understand where improvements should be made, and present the new technology leader with an accurate assessment of her company’s security.

Application Development

In the event of a departure, companies need to have a complete picture of the state of the development of their applications suite. This includes logistical issues such as schedule and budget, as well as potential risks around personnel or functionality.

To maintain a critical path forward, businesses should implement a proven project management framework, along with a comprehensive approach to risk.

Strategic Projects

Your IT initiative goes beyond simply keeping the lights on. CIOs also generate strategies for how to leverage technology in ways that differentiate your business and improve efficiency.

Gaining both a granular and overarching view of these strategic projects is crucial to ensuring that they proceed on target. Because these projects typically involve other members of the executive team, continuing to assess the influencers and decision-makers will help you determine the goals and risks for a given project.

Culture and Environment

Your company’s culture and working environment play an important role in key business functions. Culture includes not only work-life balance or cultural initiatives but also organizational priorities around balancing speed, cost, and quality.

The fact that these factors are often qualitative, rather than quantitative, can provide an added challenge. For instance, to avoid disruptions, you’ll need a specific process for understanding how your culture affects decision-making.

Hopefully by this point it is clear that a “cross your fingers” approach to a transition at the executive level for technology is not a wise approach, and that this article will help your company to think through these areas when you are faced with a change at this important position. In the interim, a vCIO can also help both with providing a roadmap for continued technology success, and helping your company to seamlessly bridge the gap between departure and arrival.

Keep an eye out for the second post of this series, where we’ll outline the specific strategies and frameworks that a vCIO uses to manage your transition.