The CIO’s primary job: Developing future IT leaders

Oct 10, 20236 mins
IT LeadershipStaff Management

IT has not traditionally tried hard enough to develop strong managers from within. That must change, with both formal and informal training — and an eye on those who could make the leap.

Senior mature female executive mentoring young colleague
Credit: fizkes / Shutterstock

Great IT organizations must establish dual career paths providing opportunities for technologists to advance their craft and careers without having to involve themselves with management and personnel issues. But it is equally vital to identify those people who can develop into managers and create a path forward for them as well.

Many professions are faced with this same issue. The best salesperson does not always make the best sales manager. The most innovative engineer does not always become the most successful engineering manager. The reason is simple: The jobs are very different and require different skills and motivations.

In my most recent article on nurturing high-performing teams, I made a comment that stirred some questions. I said that you never promote someone who does a good job; you only promote someone who has changed their job. I should clarify that this comment pertains only to promotions that lead to management positions. If you promote a person from senior programming analyst to systems architect, you generally are rewarding that person for achieving a higher technical competence that would enable them to take on bigger, more substantial projects. Although one could argue this is a change, I would say that you are not looking for change but rather continuing skill enhancement.

The challenge for IT management is to find people who are good at their current job but are also interested in the management side that is necessary for departmental success. In my opinion, the reason many IT departments have decided to go outside IT to bring in CIOs is because IT has not fostered the kind of environment that develops these types of professionals.

Changing the equation

IT has not traditionally tried very hard to develop strong managers from within. Most people learn to manage by watching what their managers do. And if people have bad managers, the results can be less than optimum. So how do we change that conundrum? First, we must commit our current managers and supervisors to a strong management training program. Once they have been trained in the subtleties of management, then we hopefully will begin to see new managers with skills developed from within.

Effective management training can, and should be, structured around techniques that current managers use to be successful. Delegating effectively and encouraging career growth among staff are two examples. So too is learning how to give effective performance reviews that both critique and reward, understanding situational management that requires managers to be tough in some situations and supportive in others, and teaching the importance of planning — and continually revising those plans. (One of my personal mantras is the 6 Ps: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.)

We also must identify people who have empathy for others. In the past, managers felt the need to divide their employees’ personal and business lives. That doesn’t work in this day and age. Our managers must learn that effectiveness on the job is always defined by the severity of personal issues. Managers must learn that to disregard these issues will significantly, if not conclusively, affect an individual’s performance.

Daily impact

Informal training and inquiry can be just as impactful. Managers should be talking to their senior subordinates about their team, asking them about their development plan, as well as their opinions about the team’s strengths and weaknesses. They should be asking who their subordinates view to be the stars and who has productivity issues and what are the reasons for both. Is it personal or professional? What are you doing to help? These are conversations that should be had but oftentimes are not. This is how we can determine whether an individual has the stretch to move away from the technology and move to the people side.

Other discussions around strategy can also be fruitful. How will this system you are working on help the company? How do you think the company is doing? Are we working on the right projects? Are there systems we should be working on? What do you think of the competitors? Asking questions like these is important because, if someone is interested in the management side of the business, they should be interested in the business itself. Talk about other issues affecting the company or the industry. Ask their opinion on ways to solve the problem. The ability to analyze a problem and devise a solution is a real management skill.

Personally, I always tried to be brutally honest with my subordinates. IT people are some of the smartest people around. They can detect spin from a mile away. I always let the truth guide my decisions. If I could not tell the real story, then my decision was faulty. There is no room for politics when deciding what to do. I would also talk about the fact that there are three kinds of people in the world: Those that make it happen, those that watch it happen, and those who look around and say “What happened?” We wanted to be a department that made things happen.

A bridge to the future

Any IT department should be developing a short list of people capable of making the shift to management and all departmental managers should be aware of the list. This list should be continually updated, and it should be constantly considered for ongoing opportunities. The people on the list should be given opportunities to make presentations before management, go to special industry sessions to either represent the company as a speaker or just to learn new industrywide ideas. These new ideas should be presented to the department and even to upper management.

By looking at management development as a primary job for existing management, we put this subject in its proper place — the future of the department and maybe even the company, as IT becomes even more critical in this highly competitive environment.

At the end of the day, it is up to IT to analyze its organization and find the people that have the stretch to make the leap to the management side. Strong organizations accomplish this by moving people to these positions from inside their organizations. This serves to foster a sense of loyalty internally because interested people feel that they have a chance to succeed in their chosen path. That is the way you develop a great organization. 

Paul M. Ingevaldson

Paul M. Ingevaldson was SVP of International and Technology for Ace Hardware. He was responsible for two major divisions of Ace, the International Division with stores in over 70 countries and the IT Division supporting both corporate and retail technology activities. He retired in 2004 after 25 years at Ace and 40 years in the IT business. Since retirement, he has authored over 30 articles about various IT topics appearing in Computerworld and CIO. He also has guest-lectured in the Masters Program of Northern Illinois University since 2006. His topic is “Digital Transformation Strategy: How to effectively exploit the IT resource to gain sustained competitive advantage.” His book "The 9 1/2 Secrets of a Great IT Organization: Don't Do IT Yourself” is available on Amazon.

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