by Martha Heller

How to develop IT leaders into future CIOs

Dec 11, 20196 mins
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Steve Faas, CIO of Aleris, reflects on his strong record of turning up-and-comers into CIOs.

A businessman ascends a staircase surrounded by symbols of business and business data.
Credit: Metamoworks / Getty Images

How do you know if you are a great CIO? Count how many of your employees have gone on to be CIOs of other companies.

For Steve Faas, CIO of aluminum manufacturer Aleris, the list is a long one. Jason Pelkey worked for Faas at GE Energy Products and is now CIO of Gilbane Building Company. Chandra Yadati, Raj Samprathi, Gaylord Seaman, and Mark Macioce worked for Faas at Aleris, and are now CIOs of Ferro Corporation, Harsco, Real Alloy, and OMNOVA Solutions, respectively.

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Curious about how Faas created such a legacy, I recently asked him about his approach to developing IT leaders.

How were you developed as an IT leader?

Early in my career, when I was at GE Plastics, I worked for John Seral, who was CIO. Every few months, John asked me to take on something new. At first, I was the HR leader for IT, the IT leader for HR, and the Six Sigma leader for IT. Over the course of time, I picked up financial systems, procurement systems, technology systems, ERP strategy, business intelligence, and offshore development.

After a few years, I had enough areas of responsibility to become CIO of Energy Products. John’s approach was to challenge me every day and teach me to be diverse and flexible, because those skills are critical to the CIO role. My experience working for John has been the basis for how I develop IT leaders.

Can you provide some examples of your approach to leadership development?

We hired Raj Samprathi from Accenture to manage our offshore Oracle development team.  About a year later, we promoted him to run service delivery globally and manage the offshore team. When our commercial systems and our business intelligence leaders both left the company, I gave each of their responsibilities to Raj. Not only were we able to give Raj new experiences, we also saved the company money by not backfilling both roles.

When Raj left a few years later, we split his role into three and gave commercial systems, business intelligence, and offshore management to three different leaders, who were ready to take on new responsibilities.

My approach is to double down on people, so that when they move on, I have the opportunity to carve up their role and advance the development of people one level down.

What are CIO traits you look for in up-and-comers?

I look for people who can deliver results with the right behaviors, which is really all about leadership. Once I worked with an IT leader who was very smart, knowledgeable about the newest technologies, and well regarded by our business leaders. But for as much coaching as he received, he could not develop as a leader because he had to manage every detail of each project himself. I told him that he was limiting his growth potential by not learning to lead.

Every IT leader reaches an inflection point where they have to become very good at team leadership if they want to take on more responsibility. The ability to lead and not do is more important to the CIO role than technical depth. If you don’t start to develop those skills early in your career, you will fail as a CIO. This is not about delegation, which is just handing a task off to someone else. Leadership is about empowerment and trust.

I also look for people who approach problems from a business perspective, not a technology perspective. These are people who might have grown their careers by being the smartest technician in the room, but they have the potential to shift to business leadership.

What advice do you have for technical people to learn the business?

There are a number of ways, including getting your MBA or finding a mentor who is a leader in a business function that is not IT. Early in my career, I held finance, HR and customer service roles, which had a technology flavor to them, but were not in IT. Future CIOs should get that cross functional experience early in their careers because it is harder to move in and out of IT as you advance. Understand also that sometimes you have to take a step backward to move forward. You might have to drop down a level for roles in finance or supply chain, but that move will allow you to advance later in your career.

How do you strike the balance between developing your people for future CIO careers and retaining them in the role they are in now?

I don’t worry about it. While I am developing them, they are contributing the company. If they leave for a great opportunity, I am happy for them and see their departure as an opportunity for others on my team.

Early in my career at GE, there were numerous opportunities to advance all over the company. But as a mid-sized company, Aleris does not need as many senior IT leaders. I am the CIO, and if any of my direct reports want to become CIOs one day, it will likely be with another company. As CIO, you have to recognize that at some point, successful personal growth and development should lead people into roles that may not be available inside your own organization. In fact, when one of my senior leaders was recently ready to move into a CIO role at another company, I coached him on how to approach his interviews.

The most important role a CIO can play is to hire and develop the right people. If you do that well, and you teach your team to develop leaders under them, you will always have a strong bench you can rely on. 

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