by Stephanie Overby

How to Turn Your Employees Into Leaders

May 01, 200715 mins
CareersIT LeadershipMentoring

CIOs who want to s쳮d as business partners and strategistsn can’t do it alone. Success requires unshackling then leaders within your IT organization and letting them run.

Motorola CIO Patty Morrison sleeps well at night. She takes real vacations. She has time to think. It doesn’t sound like the typical description of life as a CIO, particularly an IT leader at a $42 billion company in the midst of a major reorganization in the acutely competitive communications equipment market. Truth be told, there may be a little hyperbole in Morrison’s self portrayal. Her plate is full. She determines long-term IT strategy, works closely with executive peers to decide the right direction for the company, and travels the world to communicate the corporate mission to the enterprise and its customers.

But when it comes to the day-to-day operation and success of her 2,200-person technology department, Morrison’s concerns are few. She doesn’t get middle-of-the-night calls about network outages. She’s not putting out IT fires instead of eating lunch. When Motorola created a new integrated supply chain division that IT had to support, Morrison barely broke a sweat. She sought out Ones to Watch (OTW) winner Cathie Kozik, corporate VP of IT, supplied her with the necessary resources and watched her create an effective IT group from scratch.

Morrison’s not lucky. Like most successful CIOs today, the 25-year IT veteran makes a concerted effort to foster leadership at all levels of her IT organization. She knows that the benefits of pushing accountability for IT success further down the org chart go beyond personal perks like getting a good eight hours of sleep. And it’s not just succession planning we’re talking about. CIOs who want to succeed as business partners and strategists can’t do it alone.

“A CIO has a lot of priorities. As a general rule, they should spend at least half their time outside the four walls of their own organization,” says Susan Cramm, IT leadership expert and founder of ­Valuedance. “You start thinking about how that can happen and you realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute. CIOs need to think about how to drive accountability down.’ It’s a key issue.” Otherwise talented CIOs who don’t cultivate, empower and reward leadership in their departments risk creating a rocky relationship between IT and the business and dooming themselves. “A CIO who is not able to empower other leaders will have a difficult time fulfilling his role,” says Steven Agnoli, Ones to Watch judge and CIO of law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart. “The CIO is never the successful one. Your success is almost entirely related to the success of the people within your group.” Indeed, an employee’s leadership failure becomes yours as well. “There are some IT organizations where the business feels quite comfortable with the CIO and maybe even his or her immediate reports,” says Forrester VP Laurie Orlov. “But a level down, they’re not. That leads to concerns about the long-term direction of IT.”

For Morrison, IT leadership development is just as important as other strategic priorities such as determining long-term IT plans and collaborating with peers on corporate strategy. Maybe more so. “Spending a lot of time on developing talent is the only way to be sure I can execute well,” she says.


CIOs who hope to cultivate leaders throughout their organizations must first clearly define the characteristics they’re looking for in standouts. For Morrison, it’s pretty simple. “One of my favorite characteristics of leadership is courage,” she says. “It means being able to take the right risks.”

What she seeks in her staff is the opposite of what she encountered when she joined Motorola as CIO in 2005. IT employees in the European division were struggling with an underperforming vendor, and Morrison flew across the pond to assess the situation. “I found they were waiting for someone else to come in and fix it for them,” she recalls.

“There should be opportunities for people everywhere in IT to create a difference,” says Cramm. “But you have to create a culture that enables people to step up and see leadership as their role.” As a CIO herself, Cramm once inherited an IT organization with an excess of “institutional whining” and a seeming scarcity of leadership. “I told them that if they were going to bring a problem up, they had to be willing to take a leadership role in fixing it,” she says. “If they could offer some solutions, I would write checks and arrange for resources.” What emerged were employees at every level willing to lead.

BT CIO Al-Noor Ramji values employees who aren’t buried in their own work and have a broader view, like his director of customer experience and OTW honoree Ian Rosarius. Ramji himself juggles two roles—CIO for BT Global and CEO of BT Exact, the company’s research and technology arm. “I sometimes hire people without 100 percent clarity of what role they will do,” admits the CIO of the $34 billion telecom company. “But I know they will bring value.”

“Leadership has very little to do with job title,” seconds Cramm, “and everything to do with orientation.”

So are good leaders sitting in your own IT organization in full bloom just waiting to perform? That’s a matter of debate. But at Direct Energy, there’s as least as much nurture as nature involved. Kumud Kalia, CIO of the $7.6 billion energy company, gets great satisfaction from watching his IT leaders outperform expectations but acknowledges other motives are at work. “I have two jobs. I lead the IT function of the company. But as a member of the executive committee, I have a say in how the company is managed,” says Kalia. “So I need my employees to step up and do more.”

“CIO roles are more and more about delivering business value,” agrees Andy Walker, research director for Gartner Executive Programs. “CIOs are assessed by the credibility of their department. They want that breadth of perspective at the level below them and the next level and all the way down.”

To that end, Kalia actively broadens the horizons of his 330 IT employees. “I believe in stretching individuals in ways they haven’t thought about stretching themselves,” he says. According to CIO’s survey of the 2007 Ones to Watch award recipients, 95 percent said stretch assignments have been very or extremely effective in their leadership development.

One way to encourage a wider view is through job rotation programs. To that end, Kalia encourages diverse tours of duty. “Developers spend time in the architecture group, project managers rotate through the business transformation group,” he says. “It puts them in a context they haven’t operated in before, exposes them to new lines of business.”

Sometimes cultivating leadership can be as simple as educing a stretch in thinking. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s what you’re doing in terms of your IT job. But what about what we’re doing as a company?” . “That’s a stretch if all they think they have to do is develop an application.” He pushes his employees to follow through to the logical business end. “Are people using the system? If not, why not? I want them to go that last mile. Then they start to own the business outcomes.”

Kalia stretched OTW honoree and VP of IT Hugh Scott, charging him with establishing a new form of IT governance for the company’s Texas subsidiary. No technical slouch, Scott started his career as a developer, taking on progressively more senior roles and earning a PhD. But he’d expressed an interest in expanding his business-IT understanding. Scott ultimately created a decision-making forum called the Business Advisory Committee (BAC). It was a such a success, the BAC model has been adopted enterprisewide and Kalia credits Scott with strengthening IT’s overall credibility.

Kalia was involved throughout, but only as Scott’s mentor. “I talked to him for 30 minutes every week. Sometimes he’d ask for advice and I’d offer it. Other times, I let him make his own mistakes,” says Kalia. “I do that with all IT leaders, not just those in management.” In fact, 73 percent of Ones to Watch winners value one-on-one coaching as being effective in leadership development.

But, says Kalia, it’s critical to leave space for those “breakthrough moments” burgeoning leaders have to experience firsthand. “They’re rites of passage—those transcendental moments when you realize you can stretch yourself,” he says. “You just have to keep presenting them with opportunities to get it.”


Cultivating leadership and empowering leadership may sound the same. But the former involves eliciting the leadership qualities that exist in employees. Empowerment means giving them the tools they need to succeed. Chief among those is a clear picture of IT’s mission and their role in it.

“This requires far more specificity in defining the behaviors that lead to success than is typically given in the IT department,” says Emmett C. Murphy, author of Talent IQ. “Ironically, to these IT professionals—often very systematic thinkers—we typically say, ‘Go do your thing.’ That’s not empowerment, that’s irresponsible leadership.”

The CIO’s job is to make certain all employees have an almost visceral understanding of IT objectives. For BT’s Ramji, it’s right there in his own job description: “My role is to provide the vision, empower employees to understand the vision and how to apply the vision to their daily decisions.” Currently, BT is focused on transforming customer service across all products and customer segments. The corporate mantra? Do things right the first time and in as little time as possible. “It makes it easy for all of our people to know if they’re doing the right thing,” says Ramji. “They only have to ask, Will this increase our ‘right first time’ percentage or reduce cycle time?”

“I try to create an environment where the communication is so tight that people not only know what to do in any given situation but how what they’re doing links into the bigger picture,” says Motorola’s Morrison. Each year, she brings the company’s top 100 IT leaders together to discuss strategy and goals. “It allows people to think creatively about what they can personally do to make a difference,” she says. Motorola IT currently has three goals: creating business value, reducing complexity and increasing IT value. “There should be no reason you don’t have a clear line of sight from your role to those three objectives,” she says.

That clarity empowers IT leaders to move independently. “The CIO can push decision making down if you have some kind of measure of what’s going on in business and how IT aligns with that,” says Gartner’s Walker. “People can make decisions to achieve without having to refer everything up the chain of command and back down again.”

Empowering leaders also means giving them tools for success, from equipment to people. “If I ask [my employees] what they need, I have to deliver it,” says Morrison. When Morrison gave OTW winner Kozik the chance to set up a new IT group, she had to give her more than a new title and a raise. “I had to force organizational change to give her people to do the work, make prioritization decisions to make sure the money was there, make sure she had access to the finance, HR resources she needed to build a strong team,” says Morrison.

Fully armed, Kozik built not only a new IT group but good standing with a new line of business. Her team improved supplier integration times, reduced downtime by more than 40 percent and delivered a digital supply chain dashboard for mobile devices. “She’s working for the business,” says Morrison. “And I’m working for her.”

But sanctioning leaders at all levels also means allowing for less than stellar results too. It’s all part of creating an open environment that encourages people to take leadership risks. “I tell my people, ‘I’ll forgive you for anything except not trying,’” says BT’s Ramji. But for it to work, Ramji has to walk the talk. “If I tell my people, ‘Be bold. It’s OK to fail,’ then I need to be honest when things haven’t worked the way I had hoped.” To that end, he makes all scorecards for IT available to everyone in real-time and uncensored.


All that openness can be a little frightening, even for the steeliest new leader. But courage has its rewards. For example, every IT project team at BT commits to a 90-day review of their work. At the end of that period, an independent team consults with the line-of-business customer to find out if the work met the new business imperative: Was it delivered right the first time? If so, the team receives a quarter of the annual bonus right away instead of at year end. “That links rewards to leadership and delivery,” says Ramji.

Cold hard cash isn’t the only motivator of leadership. In addition to the “money and equity” rewards system in place at Motorola, Morrison also recognizes good change management throughout her organization, not just schedule and budget metrics. She also measures performance against IT’s other objectives—business value realization and reduced complexity—and highlights those accomplishments.

“The tendency in IT is to want to reward heroism. Something broke and we worked 24/7 to fix it,” says Morrison, who makes sure to call attention in Motorola’s “town halls” and other meetings to those projects whose outcome is the less-than-sexy “no disruption.” She says, “My goal is to reward preventive heroism.” Morrison also knows that outside recognition is important and isn’t shy about prodding IT users—from a customer service employee to the CEO himself—to make his gratitude plain. “I tell them it would mean an enormous amount to this person for you to acknowledge what they accomplished,” she says.

Top of mind for leaders at any level of the IT organization is career growth. Unfortunately, that’s the area where CIOs are most likely to underdeliver. And it’s not always for lack of trying. Morrison spends a lot of time talking to her employees about what they want from their careers and why. “If they’re passionate about something, they’re likely to be courageous and thus influential leaders,” she says. “But it’s hard if they can’t articulate that.”

Coaxing that information out of employees is the most difficult part of the “CIO as leadership developer” job. “Coaching is the most powerful and underused capability. CIOs need to develop it in themselves and their own leaders,” says Cramm. “A good CIO will say, Let’s figure out what your capabilities are and understand how we can bring your unique gifts and talents to the organization.” CIOs who can do that get to the leadership development “sweet spot,” says Cramm, where the goals and values of the enterprise and individual meet.

At Direct Energy, disciplined talent review processes have always been in place. But that hasn’t stopped the CIO from taking the process even further. “We ask anyone who’s been in a role for two years, What do you want to do now?” says Kalia. “We make sure there are paths for each person based on their needs.”

Kalia has created half a dozen new leadership roles on his senior management team to accommodate the talents and interests of his best and brightest. “You don’t always have to manage through tasks and milestones,” says Cramm. “With promising leaders, you can just create space in front of them. If it plays into their interests, they will fill up that space.”

Kalia also recognizes that he has strong leaders on his team who don’t want to be in senior management. “People can lead in different ways,” says Kalia, who’s divided his management organization into two streams—technical specialists and leaders of people—that are parallel right up to the senior level. “You can take a promising technical person and really screw up their career by promoting them into senior management. Instead, we let them be technical leaders. They know a certain part of the business inside and out. And they’re still setting directions for the company the way senior management leaders do.”

CIOs who are skilled at cultivating, empowering and rewarding IT leaders will see their efforts come full circle. The leaders they’ve encouraged will themselves encourage new leaders. Direct Energy’s OTW honoree Scott is involved in cultivating top talent from tech grad schools. The first four members of Scott’s program graduate next year. That 90-day review and reward process at BT? That was developed by OTW winner Rosarius.

Back at Motorola, Morrison has seen 16 of her IT leaders go on to become CIOs at other companies. Then there’s her OTW winner Kozik. Her role now even encroaches on Morrison’s core responsibilities, with Kozik developing a two- to three-year strategic vision for the integrated supply chain group.

“I have strong leaders, ” says Morrison. “I tell people, I can sleep at night now. I do have times when I am bored and my team will tell me to go take a vacation. But those are good problems to have.”