How to Build a Stronger CIO

Succession-planning programs have a lot to offer future leaders but often seem to fall flat. CIO magazine Editor in Chief Maryfran Johnson looks at this year’s “Ones to Watch” winners and learns how future CIOs are best developed.

I’ve always wondered why succession planning programs don’t seem to work.

You’ve got your hopeful HR people in one corner, your helpful mentors in another and your high-potential employee right there in the middle, basking in all that supportive sunshine. You’ve got 2.3 million links on Google to explore on the subject. You’ve got a stacked deck of skills assessments, org charts and performance reviews.

Yet all it often amounts to is wishful thinking. Traditional succession planning “often focuses more on ‘planning’ than ‘success,’” as Stephanie Overby writes in our cover story (“Pathways to Leadership”). “The best way to build leadership muscle is by exercising it.”

Based on the experiences of the 25 winners of our annual “Ones to Watch” awards, our story is packed wall-to-wall with revealing anecdotes and details about the process of developing great future CIOs. Led by our colleagues in the CIO Executive Council, our “Ones to Watch” program recognizes a select group of men and women (all of them nominated by their CIO bosses) who exemplify the traits of successful executives. Two of this year’s 25 honorees, in fact, were promoted to CIO jobs while we were still working on this story.

What we found in our reporting is that creating a world-class CIO takes a combination of on-the-job experiences, stretch assignments and the occasional failure-and-recovery cycle. On-the-job experiences stretch IT managers’ capabilities “into new areas where they are not yet fully developed,” says Steve Finnerty, vice president of IT at Applied Materials. Over the years, more than a dozen of his direct reports have gone on to become CIOs. “If you’re getting a job or an experience and you’re ready for it, it’s not big enough.”

He and the other CIOs we interviewed all underscored the importance of mentoring, of course, but also of surrounding these high achievers with the right expertise and appropriate new experiences. We found some tried-and-true IT assignments that are particularly helpful. Our “10 Ways to Groom a Leader” sidebar identifies three categories of opportunities that develop skills within IT, across the enterprise and deep inside the business.

So after all that pondering on why succession planning is so unsuccessful, I’ve finally got my answer.

Maryfran Johnson, Editor in Chief, CIO Magazine and Events

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