by Mary K. Pratt

How to build the next generation of IT leaders

Aug 06, 2018
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Forward-thinking CIOs are setting up their organizations for sustained success by anticipating, articulating and developing the skills IT will need at the top in the years ahead.

team collaboration support challenge leadership
Credit: Thinkstock

CIOs consistently list staffing as a top priority, with a tight labor market and a skills gap challenging their ability to build IT teams.

Consider, for instance, that the 2018 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey of 3,958 IT leaders found that 65 percent say a lack of talent holds back their organizations.

CIOs certainly need to focus on having the right talent throughout their IT organizations, but experienced executives, leadership experts and management consultants say CIOs also have a responsibility to build strong leaders well-positioned for success now and in the years ahead.

“Truly transformational CIOs view themselves as business leaders and make sure they’re able to adapt to every changing business condition. And they’re looking down their chain of command to make sure their team is highly skilled, that they understand their industry and can help the business continue to change,” says Dwight Specht, vice president of data and analytics at global management consulting firm North Highland.

These transformational CIOs are doing more than short-term succession planning, Specht and other experts say. They’re articulating the broad range of skills the IT organization will need at the top, identifying which skills they have, and building plans to fill in gaps.

It’s this work that helps set up CIOs and their enterprises for success, says John Petzold, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry’s New York office where he leads the CXO Optimization Practice.

“The leader of the future at the CXO level is going to be the one who can optimize their entire portfolio of technical talent, their high-potential talent and those with pure or integrated leadership skills — and who then can tie that all together,” Petzold says.

However, experts say they suspect many CIOs don’t have a good succession plan or a plan for building a strong leadership in place. “The fact that the vast majority of companies go outside to hire a new CIO, rather than promote from within, would lead us to believe that there’s room for improvement,” says Martha Heller, CEO of Heller Search Associates.

Here, experts offer five ways to achieve that vision.

Articulate needed technical skills — and the people with potential to fill them

Experts have a lengthy list of technical competencies that IT leaders should have; this list includes skills in traditional enterprise technologies as well as skills in emerging technologies and work processes. Enterprise IT leaders need to know how to manage internal development teams as well as external vendors; they must know cloud, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning; they also should know DevOps methodologies and be able to work in an agile environment that embraces the product model development approach.

“It’s that talent that CIOs need to build the next generation of technical solutions,” says Rudy Puryear, leader of the global information technology practice at Bain & Co.

Many businesses today also need their IT leaders skilled in data, enterprise architecture and user experience. And they need people who can coordinate automation and innovation.

“They also need a much more flexible and adaptive mindset,” Puryear says.

Identify needed leadership skills

The CIOs’ leadership team needs more than technical prowess; they need to understand how to leverage technology to fill strategic goals, Specht adds. As such, CIOs need to align their leaders’ technology skills to the businesses’ strategic objectives for the upcoming three to five years to determine where they have the needed competencies and where they don’t.

“[An IT leader] should be comfortable pursuing calculated risks and experimenting with new emerging technologies. They should be able to have a vision of complexity: having a hold on technical debt and redundancies. And he or she should have a close relationship with the customers, both internal and external, to drive ideas that sustain IT’s value to business and be able to quickly respond to changing priorities by shifting well-oiled implementation levers,” says Jeoung Oh, principal in the CIO Advisory practice at KPMG.

Oh adds: “Being comfortable navigating ambiguity and building a business ecosystem is paramount.”

However, each organization needs to determine its own unique leadership needs, Heller says.

“You need to define what leadership means for your company and for your IT function. Define your competencies,” she says.

Heller, who has written about succession planning, points to former Intel CIO Kim Stevenson, who built a development curriculum around the five attributes she believed her leaders needed. They were broad perspective, a company-first mentality, systems thinking, change agent capability, and courage.

Screen for soft skills

Enterprise IT executives need more than technical skills and business acumen; they also need the managerial and leadership skills that enable them to engage and influence their colleagues and teams. But research shows that those skills are more innate vs. learned, says Anita Williams Woolley, an associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

Some of the traits in this area include self-regulation, the ability to draw inferences, and the capability to pick up on social queues. They’re particularly important for leaders today as they work in more collaborative roles where they need to influence, persuade, inspire and guide rather than command and dictate, experts say.

“These are things you can’t really change about a person,” Woolley says, adding that individuals with such traits can cultivate and develop them to make themselves stronger, more effective leaders.

Woolley says CIOs need to assess their current staff members and potential new hires for these traits to ensure they have those needed characteristics, saying: “When CIOs think about who to promote for managerial positions, this is something they should more systematically fit into their assessments.”

Of course, those without these traits still have potential within the IT organization, Woolley says, but CIOs should be realistic about their capabilities and the positions where they’ll perform best.

Look beyond IT

The concept of IT as a centralized function is a thing of the past, so CIOs should look throughout their companies when searching for leadership talent.

“There’s a proliferation of IT skills out in the business,” Oh says. “The key things central to IT — solutions architecture, data architecture, security and network architecture — they’ll still be part of central function. But business intelligence, automation, analytics, those skills will be throughout the enterprise.”

However, CIOs should do more than bring that talent into the IT enterprise fold; they should work with their C-suite colleagues to identify and cultivate such talent throughout the enterprise, says Lloyd S. Baird, professor emeritus in the Organizational Behavior Department at the Boston University Questrom School of Business.

He advises CIOs to pull these workers onto project teams where they’ll be co-creating the technology-enabled business initiatives and in the process developing their business and technical acumen. At the same time, he says CIOs will be able to better assess their skills and leadership potential — all while getting real work done.

Develop a development plan

Korn Ferry’s Petzold suggests CIOs list the capabilities they require now and in the future, determine which workers within the organization have which capabilities and which capabilities are missing from the team.

From there, CIOs can determine whether to build, borrow or buy the missing capabilities.

To build, Petzold advises CIOs to use in-house experts to teach others. He also promotes what he calls “bang-for-your-buck development planning” that puts employees on projects where they can learn what they need while getting work done. For example, a junior IT executive who needs to learn more about infrastructure could be assigned to co-lead an infrastructure-related project with a colleague well versed in the area. “It goes back to the idea of leveraging what you’ve got, and you can do that without disrupting your organization,” he adds.

Others advise CIOs to leverage existing HR programs to build up their leadership team and rotate their senior people and high-potential employees through different positions to help them acquire needed skills and develop flexibility.

Michael Fraccaro, chief human resources officer at Mastercard, says he works with his company’s CIO on such an approach.

“At Mastercard, development is focused on three key dimensions: experience, exposure, and education,” he says. “We created leadership pathways that outline different options in each of those dimensions. For example, the CIO pathway calls out experiences like developing a technology solution or service in partnership with internal and external stakeholders and driving principles of cost transparency, IT service consumption, and performance. Exposure are things like representing Mastercard at local technologist communities and mentoring fellow colleagues. Education is about specific certification, degrees, or formal learning in areas like user experience and digital transformation. The point of the pathway is to broadly outline different ways anyone in the organization can aspire to be the next CIO.”

Experts also advise CIOs to promote talent thoughtfully, rather than based primarily on seniority (as is still done in many organizations). “It gives the person the skills, opportunities and training to perfect the role they’re in and to be ready for the next,” Puryear says.

Even with such programs, however, CIOs will likely have to hire either new staffers or contractor employees for some skills that they’re lacking — that’s the borrow and buy part. But CIOs can be strategic about when they borrow and buy if they’ve already identified the skills they need.

“It all starts first and foremost by understanding the capabilities of your team,” Petzold says.

Build a better pipeline

Although CIOs are most commonly involved in developing their direct reports and occasionally the level of workers just below them, Oh also advises CIOs to look further into the future by considering how they’re staffing junior positions and how the talent at that level can help shape senior workers.

With that in mind, Oh says CIOs need to increase their internships and college recruiting efforts. He points to one of his clients, who had not recruited on campus for 20 years. He says younger workers bring with them an inquisitive quality, a willingness to question the status quo and new perspectives. They’re also often trained in using some of the latest technologies, such as automation and blockchain.

“We want new ideas and fresh ideas coming through, but not all IT organizations have had that,” he says. “We’re not saying that all incumbents should leave, but there’s some healthy turnover and [when that happens] companies shouldn’t just hire mid-level workers.”