by Kim S. Nash

Secrets to Building a Deeper Bench

May 01, 2011
IT Leadership

Is your team lacking leadership depth? CIO magazine’s Ones to Watch honorees prove hands-on experience and a personal touch builds a stronger group of IT managers

It’s easy to confuse leadership ability with a checklist of book-learned skills, such as managing projects, organizing staff and evaluating vendors. A good IT leader can do all of that. But true leadership is about influence. A great leader incites others to do what they do best, in harmony, to create a result exponentially better than what any single person could accomplish.

Our Ones to Watch Awards, produced annually by the CIO Executive Council and presented by CIO magazine, recognize the next wave of IT leaders and the CIOs that have encouraged their development. Honorees exhibit the kind of influence and attendant business accomplishments that distinguish them as future CIOs. This year’s class of 25 honorees (See “CIO Magazine’s 2011 Ones to Watch Honorees.”) also exemplifies how the CIO’s dedication to cultivating leadership among IT staff pays off in the form of a deep bench of professionals who can guide their companies’ success now and for years to come. True leaders, we find, beget leaders.

See the complete list of honorees and the judges who chose them.

Find out how we chose this year’s winners.

Learn how to spot a future leader.

Yet according to a CIO Executive Council survey of 328 IT executives, which was conducted in February, there are troubling differences in outlook between respondents who said they had a shallow IT leadership bench and those who claimed a deep one. Although 52 percent of respondents say bench depth is “somewhat improving,” many companies display an alarming lack of attention to what they know are key aspects of leadership development. Conflict management and political savvy, for example, are traits respondents deem important, yet they are best addressed by just 26 percent and 17 percent of companies, respectively. The sad but unsurprising result: These attributes are only “a little developed” in senior IT leadership, respondents said. (The CIO Executive Council is a global peer advisory service and professional association founded by CIO’s publisher.)

Other skills that contribute to becoming an effective, influential leader are also lacking. Just 10 percent of respondents said their companies address the ability to read people. Dealing with ambiguity came in at 27 percent, and understanding the real power structure within the business at a lowly 15 percent.

IT departments that run in reactive mode, dealing primarily with daily tactical issues, are apt to ignore opportunities for leadership building, creating a downward cycle, says Karen Rubenstrunk, an executive coach and co-author of The CIO Edge: Seven Leadership Skills You Need to Drive Results. She analyzed the survey results for the Council. “Developing strong leaders under the CIO frees the CIO to work more strategically with other executives,” she adds. “You get to do things you signed up to do as a CIO.”

All of which makes GlaxoSmithKline, Nissan North America, Jacobs, PepsiCo and other companies represented among our 2011 Ones to Watch winners stand out all the more as they build strong leaders by fostering these and other skills. Doing so keeps companies competitive, says Linda Ann Goodspeed, vice president of information systems at Nissan North America and a 2011 Ones to Watch honoree. “Sharp leaders are creative and innovative, and that just spreads.”

A Personal Touch Gets Results

Consider the IT lineage at the $43.9 ­billion pharmaceutical firm Glaxo­Smith­Kline (GSK). CEO Andrew Witty advocates a personal, one-on-one approach to leadership development, conducting regular career conversations with corporate executive team members, including Bill Louv, CIO and senior vice president of core business services. Louv, in turn, seeks out the leadership potential in key members of his staff, as was the case with 2011 Ones to Watch honoree Joe Touey, whom he promoted in 2007 from senior vice president of IT for GSK’s R&D unit to SVP for North America Pharmaceuticals IT. North America Pharmaceuticals, with 27 percent of company sales, is the biggest part of GSK.

In building his own team to attack the U.S. pharma business transformation planned for North America, Touey continues the leadership development that starts at the top of GSK and flows down to produce a bench three or four players deep. He recently deputized Matt Lasmanis, among others, for stretch assignments beyond their conventional IT positions, which are focused on an application type or technology. By providing Lasmanis access to a business-consulting role as vice president of business partnering in IT, Touey is supporting Lasmanis’s career development just as Louv supported his.

Louv, who has been at GSK for 16 years, says he’s seen plenty of formal management courses and development programs in his career. He doesn’t dismiss them, but leaders inside and outside IT grow best, he says, under a personal touch. “If you don’t take time to talk to people about their professional development, give them the tools and chances to use them, set their rewards and recognitions, it just doesn’t get done.”

Leaders must know how to read people, navigate politics, understand the dynamics of other departments and accurately assess their own performance, says Cora Carmody, CIO of Jacobs, a $10 billion engineering-services firm. Yet many companies don’t teach these skills, Carmody says. Her view reflects the Council survey findings that, for example, cross-departmental training—where IT staff could learn more about how the company operates and perhaps hone political skills—is infrequent, rare or never done at 81 percent of companies.

Rubenstrunk says that cultivating political savvy, learning how to size people up and other soft but vital skills are best learned by doing. Yet too few managers, she says, create the opportunity for those they oversee to have such experiences. They fail to let a team member present to the board, for example, or help star performers dissect the power plays that went on during a key meeting. “Unless you have practical experiences, this kind of learning doesn’t get embedded in your brain,” she says.

At Jacobs, Carmody approaches leadership development both formally and informally. For example, she emails coffee-talk questions to her global staff every two weeks, aiming to spark conversation on topics from world views to personal dreams. The idea is to build bridges by getting to know people. One recent question: What would you try if you could not fail? She challenged her leaders to share their answers with two to six others, then she facilitated discussion. Feedback she received showed that people talked about personal and professional aspirations, including how to help others achieve theirs. She feels connecting with staff on a human level is one of the most effective management tools a CIO can use.

Developmental assignments are a more formal tool at Jacobs. Carmody says she dislikes referring to such assignments as “stretch” because, to her, that implies doubt that the stretcher can get it done. She recently assigned one of her direct reports to lead the IT portion of a due diligence investigation of a company Jacobs was considering buying. He had never done due diligence of an acquisition target of that magnitude and “got to contemplate a whole new set of business issues,” she says.

Carmody was able to make that assignment, by the way, because she herself had been recently tapped by Jacobs President and CEO Craig Martin to lead a different due diligence process—her own development assignment. Jacobs ended up buying the company, Jordan, Jones and Goulding, and Jacobs’ stock jumped 5 percent the day after the announcement. Carmody’s staffer, meanwhile, sharpened his skills in financial analysis. He now leads the integration of the acquisition, another new experience for him, and is learning to motivate staff from the two companies to work together, she says.

Once dynamic and strong leadership-development techniques take hold, CIOs naturally build a deep bench of IT and business talent, which leads to smooth succession planning not just for the CIO position, but also for the larger management pipeline.

When CIOs create a team on which people excel, stretch and excel again, finding the right person for an open IT-management position or a new role means choosing from an embarrassment of riches, rather than suffering through the trial it can be for some organizations, says Amy Wang, director of information and the information security officer at Henry Ford Health System West Bloomfield Hospital. At the hospital, information services and other senior leaders are coached in personal and professional development by the CEO, says Wang, another 2011 Ones to Watch honoree. Wang, who reports to the chief operating officer, recently joined an executive leadership committee formed to decide how to plan for the hospital’s future growth. “We can step in for each other because we’re all well-rounded,” she says. “Each of us learning to fly makes us all better.”

Where Shallow-Bench Companies Get Stuck

No one can fly, however, when a company hasn’t built strong leaders who can take on varied roles as needed. In the Council’s survey, 46 percent of respondents characterized their IT bench as “somewhat shallow.” Companies with a shallow bench emphasize project-management training as a leadership-development technique—but wrongly so, says Rubenstrunk. Learning how to use a Gantt chart is a typical skill taught in a project-management certificate program. Learning how to assess the motivations of people on a project team and coax them to compromise, an important leadership process, can’t be learned in a classroom.

“It’s as if shallow-bench companies simply don’t understand how to create a deep bench,” she says. That can result in an IT department perpetually behind the eight ball on projects that require careful synchronicity with business units. Dissect any project failure, Rubenstrunk says, “and you will see a lack of leadership skills, not a lack of PM certificates.”

CIOs must create chances for staff to experiment with leadership mechanics. At the monthly meeting to update the executive steering committee about project progress, for example, let a budding leader present so he may polish his public persona and gain experience reading a room, among other valuable skills.

Shallow benchers also reported they don’t see much value in experiences such as stretch assignments and business unit rotations, while those with a deep bench rated those items as valuable. Companies with a deep bench not only recognize the worth of these experiences, but they have a list of people ready to launch into them, Rubenstrunk says, while laggards typically don’t.

PepsiCo last year launched a program called The Lab, which develops leaders by assigning them to take on some of the $57.8 billion company’s toughest strategic issues, says Richard Martin, an IT program manager and a 2011 Ones to Watch honoree. Martin was one of 30 bright lights in PepsiCo’s global IT staff who was chosen for the nine-month program, which emphasizes learning by doing rather than classroom work. Martin’s team of six had to devise a mobile strategy for sales groups across the company. All the participants also continued their day jobs; Martin leads the integration of corporate systems with the two bottlers PepsiCo acquired last year. “It’s intense,” he says. Martin and his team produced a toolkit for PepsiCo’s sales organizations in over 100 countries to assess their mobile capabilities and how they may build on them.

What Martin learned, he says, was how to stretch his thinking from daily operations to conceiving strategy that incorporates financial projections, industry trends and cultural differences. As he puts it, “Could I wrap my mind around the problems of our Chinese salesforce? We were pushed outside our comfort zone.” But releasing a promising IT worker for a rotation through a business unit or a special assignment out of the daily grind takes too much time or strains remaining staff, according to 51 percent of survey respondents. Another 24 percent said they’d like to offer these opportunities, but the business doesn’t buy in.

Yet this way of thinking reveals a self-defeating shortsightedness, says Nissan’s Goodspeed. CIOs who claim no time or opportunity to give their staff these assignments are missing the chance to improve the effectiveness of IT overall, she says. Without high-functioning leaders, projects are bound to fail.

Goodspeed continuously looks for ways to help her team branch out. She recently reassigned her senior manager of applications to lead incident resolution, which means solving the most complicated IT problems. “He was a little shocked,” Goodspeed recalls. “But he’s a very tough, very strong person. I’d seen him get a project and always get it done. He didn’t worry about bureaucracy. He just did it.”

And that approach, she says, translated perfectly to incident resolution. “If you’re a strong leader, you’re smart enough to do many different things,” she says.

Refining Future Leaders

GSK swarms on leadership development and has intensified its efforts in the past three years. It uses techniques such as rotations through business units, project presentations to the CEO, the prestigious internal Enterprise Leadership program and breakfast talks with the CIO. The common thread in these formal and informal leadership-training opportunities is personal attention. GSK last year mandated that every employee should have at least two meaningful career conversations per year with their bosses and tied part of executives’ and managers’ bonuses to that directive. If 90 percent of GSK employees surveyed reported having those talks, executives would get additional bonus money, CIO Louv explains. They missed out by 2 percent, but are determined to nab that bonus this year, he says.

Still, the tactic reflects Council survey findings that companies with deep benches do more one-on-one mentoring. Only by talking with each other up, down and sideways on the org chart, Louv says, can managers establish the conditions for leadership to bloom. You discover what inspires employees, where their talents lie, how they may benefit from new experiences and, in turn, how they can become more valuable to the company.

It also helps that Louv, Touey and other senior executives are awake to growth opportunities that they can give their people. They continuously look for ways to expose promising staff to different aspects of the company and challenging situations through such things as stretch assignments or a stint on a cross-functional committee.

For example, Lasmanis, Touey’s pick for a skill-building assignment as a business consultant, helped develop a plan to unify the IT strategy in GSK’s R&D IT group, which was using a mix of technology that was becoming increasingly expensive to maintain. The idea grew from a conversation Lasmanis had with Touey, his mentor.

The work raised Lasmanis’ profile and stretched his skills in conceiving high-level IT strategy, he says. Meanwhile, one of the career goals he had set with Touey was to get more experience working in GSK’s commercial business. In January, he joined Touey in North America Pharmaceuticals, where he is helping revamp how IT works with business units. Louv, meanwhile, still works closely with Touey to broaden his leadership experience. One high-profile move: Louv had been working with human resources and others in IT to create a formal leadership-development program for his group. About the time it was finished late last year, a companywide program emerged that covered much of the ground for first-line leaders, so Louv dropped the IT-specific endeavor. Leadership transcends function, he says, and that philosophy pervades the new corporate Enterprise Leadership program.

The 40 participants in the program, who had to be nominated and sponsored by senior executives, are learning how GSK operates end to end, getting a view into company workings that few have had, Louv says. The program educates these star performers about the company as a whole. Participants share their business and leadership challenges, and they learn how to be more effective.

Among those 40, Touey is the lone star from IT. That distinction, he says, reflects his accomplishments, but even more so reflects that GSK recognizes IT as central to strategy setting and competition busting.

It’s Not Money, It’s Mind-Set

Big companies may have an advantage in building sophisticated leadership-development programs because they have more staff and monetary resources to dedicate to them. But even among the largest companies, those with $40 billion in annual revenues offer more mentoring and stretch assignments than $2 billion to $5 billion companies, according to the Council survey. That includes cross-training in departments other than IT, periodic self-awareness discussions and various executive education programs, the survey finds. Yet leadership advocates insist it’s not money; it’s mind-set.

Paying attention to how your staff behaves so that you can help them build skills doesn’t cost anything, says Jacobs CIO Carmody. Nor does conducting 20 minutes of post-mortem discussion about a key meeting, to help staff hone political savvy, adds GSK’s Touey. PepsiCo’s Martin passes along the leadership-development techniques he learned last year to his peers and staff. “I’m a junkie when it comes to development. People should be in a continuous improvement cycle.”

Large public efforts, such as rotations or committees, may involve lobbying other departments, but first and foremost, such programs need an alert CIO to push them, says Rubenstrunk. “They know how important leadership development is, so they make it happen,” she says. “They take what they can get and make the most of it.”

Follow Senior Editor Kim S. Nash on Twitter: @knash99.