by Myles F. Suer

Grooming future IT leaders

Jan 11, 2019
CIOIT LeadershipIT Skills

How can CIOs improve their grooming of future leaders?

As I discussed in “How to select a leader,” leadership in the digital age is a necessity. But how can CIOs groom and grow leaders that are able to break through the all-too-common silo thinking and enable tangible business change?

Identify leadership potential early

As I’ve learned through moderating countless #CIOChat sessions, CIOs believe that IT leaders are needed with awareness and understanding of the broader context of their business environments. This includes a willingness to listen and incorporate ideas from others into their own viewpoints. Leadership, clearly, has many characteristics. However, CIOs say they are looking for people that take initiative, are not afraid of new challenges, and most importantly, don’t blame others.

For this reason, CIOs need to create systems that reward the right behaviors. Situational awareness is key especially in the technology space. Are you optimizing? Being disrupted? Undertaking digital transformation? Each require a different skill sets.

Most importantly, people are needed that can learn, unlearn, and relearn. I like to tell my students as much as they want to get done with their degree that they need to be “lifelong learners” to stay relevant in the digital era. IT leaders should look for people who are continuous learners and are always looking to improve processes. CIOs, for this reason, need to identify opportunities that allow their team to show themselves early in career, not just technically, but through communication and collaboration opportunities with business units.

Managing a career needs to be a two-way street

A potential leader must be interested in their career and go for it from their side as well. It’s their career and they need to own success as much as the people helping them along. If they’re already in the work force, then it’s all about what they fight for and what they fight against. Future leaders need an open mind. They need listening ability. And they need lots of “soft” skills.

IT leaders need to be looking for those who are keen to learn, take on responsibility, and have an inquiring mind. In general, future IT leaders need skill at listening, communicating, encouraging, supporting, and motivating. CIOs need to make time to coach future leaders.

Grooming and growing potential leaders

If you are a good leader, you shouldn’t be afraid to grow others on your team. Simply, put you have to have an attitude of “abundance versus scarcity.” For this reason, IT leaders should give future leaders assignments that stretch them and give them added responsibility. At the same time, be careful that it’s not too much. Once identified, CIOs should get future leaders involved in their meetings with the business units. They, also, believe in building a 2 year ‘personal roadmap’ which builds skills, education, and experiences for each potential leader. It can, also, be good to give them some CIO-level work to research or stretch assignments that provide them face time and chance to shine with the existing leadership team.

A career path needs to include leadership challenges and provide the future leader with a process to help them determine whether their path is deeper technology or more leadership. Regardless, future leaders need to mentally branch out to become better balanced as a leader. If possible, IT leaders should rotate people throughout the organization. Meanwhile, it’s important to show future leaders how important the role they are trying to get is. This is not just about telling them about it. It’s important to be completely transparent during this process.

You shouldn’t worry about whether a potential leader moves to another company. CIOs need to enable a “one team” approach where the team includes all roles regardless of department/unit and everyone commits to goals, cadence, and priorities together and is empowered accordingly.

How important is mentorship to the grooming new leaders?

This depends on the individual. Some individuals are a good fit for mentorship and others fit better with coaching. Also, forcing and appointing mentors can be seen as a negative. Relationships are best when they develop and mature organically. Mentorship outside the organization is a good thing too—especially business mentorship.

Mentors are the most important aspect to grooming new leaders. Proteges get to understand what they need from a mentor at particular moments in their career. The best leaders seek mentorship relationships to leverage.

Burgeoning IT leaders need to have formal and informal mentors too. One CIO suggested that they try to pick informal from outside the company, so they can watch and learn. Choose a business area that they feel has the best leadership and ask them to mentor. Approaches taken may depend on the learning styles of the mentee and the mentor. Pairing a visual mentee with a lecturing mentor may not benefit either that much. Of course, there’s no substitute for some old-fashioned doing. However, many CIOs believe that one is never too senior in a career to need mentors

The right match is key. You want to get a very active mentor who will spend quality time with the person and involve them in their business areas. Active mentoring, also, can be fun for the mentor. Some CIOs say that they love mentoring young people starting their careers. It helps them stay young and involved with current world.

Those that have been mentored in their career say that mentorship is a must and extremely important.  Having more than one mentor is important. Focusing on having mentors not only from other areas inside your organization, but externally as well. The reality is that no one mentor will be able to address every mentoring function you need. They, also, suggest with the pace of technology change; mentorship, apprenticeships, and hands on training (experiential learning) will become the pathway to “new collar” jobs. Apprenticeships in technology has been an untapped opportunity that YearUp is attempting to solve. If only my youngest son wasn’t six months too old for this opportunity.

Breaking siloed thinking

Future IT leaders can fix siloed thinking by resolving the root cause of issues, especially when those that cause is silos. It is important to focus on the business. It is not US (i.e., IT) versus THEM (i.e., the business). It is WE. 

It’s a good goal for IT to help break down IT silos. Here IT organizations can lead by example and hold their team accountable to the same behavior. One way to help this is to rotate staff through a series of experiences. Get them to understand business and technology strategy and architecture by teaching them yourself or by sending to outside classes. Get them involved in peer groups can also help. IT is one of the few areas that sees across the business, therefore, CIOs have a duty to avoid business silos. In the same way, IT must move people around to avoid its own internal silos.

Encouraging change ready leaders inside and outside of IT?

IT leaders should have a mantra for leadership and growth. One CIO said their favorite mantra has been from an early leader in their career is “work yourself out of a job and you’ll find a better one.” This mentality can help reduce the fear of change.

The fact is change ready leaders don’t need encouragement. They are either ready for change. The key is to communicate with them regularly with informal discussions and get their input, so a discussion can be had. Nothing better than sitting in a room with a whiteboard and just discussing a topic.

Encouraging change ready leaders, however, can be goal depending on the organization. Being a CIO is about change far more than being about IT. Unless your leaders are driving change, how can they hope to have success? CIOs clearly need to take the first step. Get up out of your chair and build relationships/trust, ask questions and have a “how we can,” not “why we can’t” attitude.

CIOs should encourage change ready leaders to challenge the status quo. Clearly, the most dangerous thinking to persist in an organization is “we have always done it that way!” Fixing this requires a lot of communication. It requires a leader that can lead by example. It requires the empowerment of people. This can be enabled by meeting regularly with business areas and several times a day within organization. CIOs should open the discussion by asking about experiences and opportunities the future.

Parting remarks

It is amazing what can be learned by listening into the #CIOChat. We have learned here ideas that are important for IT leaders but are as important to all business leaders. Hopefully, the insight provides you some guidance for your career and those of your team.