CIO development – growing the next IT leaders

Is IT commanding the attention it should? You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who will argue that IT isn’t increasingly important to business, and following on from this it would be natural to assume that IT leaders must be becoming more influential in business. But, as many recognise, this is not necessarily the case. A spate of surveys conducted towards the end of last year, such as those by Capgemini and recruitment firm Harvey Nash, all seem to point in the opposite direction – CIOs seem to becoming generally less influential.

How can you buck the trend? Prompted by this paradox, we delved deeper through a research project, undertaken for the thought-leader network CSC Leading Edge, that was entitled ‘Expanding the CIO Mandate’. Eight years earlier Michael Earl and Philip Vivien identified trends in expectations of CIOs and defined the future role of the ‘New CIO’. This transcended the then-dominant technology focus to include contribution to organisational transformation, as ‘Change Master’ and business strategy direction. We set out to discover how the minority of New CIOs, who in our language had an expanded mandate, achieved this status and made some surprising discoveries.

We worked with CIOs who had an expanded mandate and retraced their diverse careers to discover two interesting and unexpected patterns. They seemed to share a largely common set of attributes, many of which are uncommon in the general IT population, and they all followed a similar, atypical career route. To pick just one common attribute, an almost universal characteristic of CIOs with an expanded mandate is adventurousness. They were all on a constant quest for new challenges to the extent that they would sacrifice security to test and stretch themselves, typically committing first and then working out how to deliver afterwards. Perhaps because of this, their common career route was not the normal linear progression through IT. Although they served a (usually accelerated) apprenticeship in IT, they soon turned their attention elsewhere in order to find new challenges. These were typically in general management roles in mainstream business units. When they returned to IT, it was in order to take a strategic stance. Neither their adventurousness nor their heterogeneous career progression is typical in IT. If these are the keys to success then it is not so surprising that relatively few make it.

Learning agility

Is this more than an extraordinary coincidence? Current general theories of leadership rank emotional intelligence and “learning agility” as essential attributes for success. Inclusion of emotional intelligence probably will not cause any raised eyebrows, but what is learning agility? Learning agility is essentially the speed with which you can take charge in an entirely new situation: orientate yourself, assess the situation, see a solution and put it into effect. As Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas say in their book Geeks and Geezers, “The ability to process new experiences, to find their meaning and to integrate them into one’s life, is the signature skill of leaders…”

The way to develop learning agility is through practice. Is the adventurousness of the CIOs we interviewed (which may appear to be recklessness to traditional IT professionals) their instinctive affinity with challenges which developed their learning agility? It seems so.

How can this insight be exploited? The opportunity it offers depends upon how you see IT in your organisation. Is IT a reliable service provider, a necessary overhead? Or has IT more to offer as a partner showing the way in technology-led innovation and transformation? If you are still reading this, it must be the latter.

To step up to this aspiration, one necessary change will be to nurture learning agility, by -allowing the self-selecting rising stars to pit themselves against new challenges and to test and stretch their leadership muscle.- This means awarding assignments for drive, -determination and ambition rather than prior experience and proven expertise. It means supporting and recognising those courageous enough to take on the most demanding and potentially dangerous challenges rather than rewarding success irrespective of the degree of difficulty entailed. It involves ensuring regular rotation of roles rather than preserving long-term continuity in position.

Also key to developing IT leaders is encouraging and enabling interchanges with other business units rather than -positioning IT as an impenetrable specialism. Finally, it means promoting IT as a talent source to the rest of the business rather than a sink in which talent is trapped.

Will it work? An incidental observation from our investigation was that, in identifying CIOs with expanded mandates as prospective subjects of their research, we noticed that a disproportionate number had worked in particular organisations. Intrigued by this, we contacted these -organisations to try to discover why. One was snacks and pet-food maker Mars, a company well known for the quality of its general management development. What is perhaps less well known is that IT management is regarded as general management, just the same as the management of any other business unit or function. IT managers at Mars are recruited, developed and appraised against the same competency set as the whole of the rest of the business and one of the key competencies is learning agility. IT managers are encouraged and expected to have the same diversity of experience, across functions, organisations and countries, as any other general manager, and vertical progression in IT is very rare. This -approach has proved extremely effective in producing the highest calibre IT leaders.

Is it worth it? In the last Harvey Nash CIO Survey, 85 per cent of respondents thought that a shortage of skills in IT could impact the growth potential of their businesses. By far the greatest concern was the lack of commercial understanding, customer awareness and interpersonal skills being exhibited by the next generation of technology leaders. Almost three-quarters of respondents (74 per cent) ranked “building and maintaining relationships with the business” as the most important capability, but only just under a quarter (22 per cent) of respondents thought their current team were excellent and more than half (52 per cent) thought they were below the accept-able standard. The severity of the situation is clearly being recognised and it requires urgent action.

About the authors

Gordon Watt was an IT leader in international blue-chip companies for over 15 years, and is recognised for transforming IT organisations. He is now an independent researcher, consultant and coach and is a visiting research fellow at Cranfield University, a research associate of CSC Leading Edge Forum, and an associate of the Adair Leadership Foundation.

Brinley Platts is chair of and the founder of the IMPACT programme for IT leadership

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