Total Leadership: Let Talent Bloom

Innovation. It's the latest buzzword in IT. I've been hearing it everywhere: at a recent vendor conference, at my weekly staff meeting. I've read about it in CIO. The vendors, my staff and the media aren't wrong. Innovation is imperative to every IT department. But if innovation is to be more than just a buzzword within our organizations, we need to manage our IT organizations in a way that encourages the growth and mobility of our employees.

You see, people are what really matter in this equation. People create innovation, and not just on certain days of the week or in designated brainstorming sessions. In order to ensure that an IT organization is bringing innovative solutions to bear on business problems and opportunities, you must pay close attention to the talent that is flowing into, up, and even out of the technology group. A stagnant IT organization is incapable of producing fresh ideas. You need a constant infusion of new blood and the perspective that comes from having new experiences, even if that means accepting turnover among your staff and challenging those who remain by pushing them into unfamiliar roles.

The CIO is responsible for setting the creative tone of the organization. I have found three ways to foster mobility within an IT organization in order to encourage a culture of innovation.

Accept Attrition

I once worked at a company where attrition was almost nonexistent. Rather than a sign that the company was a great place to work, it was an indication of stagnation. Within the IT organization, the response to any new idea typically was, "But we've always done it this way."

One thing I learned from this experience is that moderate attrition invites a healthy flow of external talent into an organization. In an environment where innovation is encouraged, attrition is not something leaders are terrified of, because it opens doors for fresh ideas and new perspectives.

Of course, no one wants to lose good people. But letting them go can have unanticipated benefits. Others may emerge from their shadows to achieve positive things that surprise management, their peers and sometimes even themselves.

You can use attrition to strengthen your organization by redefining any open positions. Consider hiring a recent college graduate skilled in the latest technology for a new position. Or give an existing employee the challenge of creating a new job. Both of these choices force employees to bring new and creative ideas forward, ultimately requiring them to be innovative.

Invest in Top Performers

Identify your top performers at multiple levels and decide which of these people could learn to perform equally well elsewhere, whether in another area of the IT department or another part of the company. The natural response to a new role is to take a fresh approach because you're not vested in the old way of doing things. And so, anytime you put talented people in new positions, they tend to change things for the better.

The only way this approach can be effective is to employ hands-on management of high-potential employees. At American Airlines, I require each project team to meet with me quarterly for a "deep dive" meeting during which we review costs, schedules and the overall health of the project. I expect all team members to attend these meetings, not just my direct reports. And I expect team members at all levels to be active participants.

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