Tips for staff development

Some CIOs are worried about a dearth of higher-ed graduates with that perfect combination of IT and business skills. And with executives eyeing outside providers as alternatives to internal IT, CIOs had better get serious about improving the business and leadership skills of their staffs. The following are some strategies CIOs can use to keep their staffs on the leading edge.

1. Leadership by rotation. John Mullin, CIO at the Georgia Institute of Technology, sponsored the Office of Information Technology Professional Leaders Program. This 18-month rotational program teaches six top performers in the IT department on-the-job management skills, including leadership, strategy, project management, HR finance, communication, and change management.

Participants spend the first two weeks of the program shadowing the directors of each of the seven areas within IT. After that, participants are given an extended assignment in one or some of these areas. Projects are designed with the intention of exposing staff to new skills. For example, a recent project focuses on developing an IT budget that correlates with a three-year strategic plan and specific IT initiatives. Participants use PeopleSoft to compute the budget and then create and fund different IT positions to meet the increased demands. Throughout the rotation, participants meet biweekly with mentors who work outside of the assigned area to help track their progress and address any difficulties as they arise.

For those employees not selected for the formal program, Mullin uses “point assignments,” in which staffers are given a new task for a few days at a time or even six months. “The most successful ad hoc point assignment was when we rotated IT operations staff from the network centre into the customer support organization,” Mullin recalls. “The network centre staff came to the rotation with strong technical expertise, but after spending time with the customers, they gained a deeper understanding of how customers actually use the technology and are better prepared for growth outside of their technology silo.” Mullin is proud to report that participating staffers have been promoted to higher positions in the department because of new skills gained through these assignments.

2. Partner with external mentors. Steve Strout, vice-president and CIO of Morris Communications Company LLC, created a growth opportunity for high-potential staff members in summer 2004. Realizing that IT is a common bond regardless of industry or organization, he reached out to local businesses about starting a mentoring relationship. His motivation in creating this program was to generate a sense of community and networking among his IT staff. “I wanted them to realize that there are other IT people out there doing things differently but successfully,” recalls Strout.

Four to eight Morris IT employees participate in the mentoring program. Strout targets specific external organizations known for their success in technology. The relationship, typically between a Morris mid-level professional and a manager from an external organization, is not about a transfer of technical skills but is focused on leadership and management skills. Morris staff can also serve as mentors to staff at the local organization. Depending on personal preferences, participants meet for lunch or a drink after work while others send e-mail or talk on the phone. There is no time limit on how long the mentoring relationship will last; if the match is a good one, however, Strout hopes it lasts a lifetime.

Strout notes that the most successful mentoring relationship is one that “gives participants the ability to view things from different perspectives and then respond in their own jobs.” Strout plans to incorporate mentor feedback and opinion into the organization’s 360-degree performance review program that is targeted for this year and to reach out to more local organizations, including higher-ed, to widen the mentoring pool.

3. Create support and incentives for technology training. As of this year, Moti Vyas, CIO of Viejas Enterprises, a Southern California tribal casino and outlet mall, requires his staffers to attend 40 hours of classroom training annually to improve their technology skills and to prepare them for new project deployments. Forty hours may seem like a lot, but the staff doesn’t complain: Annual and quarterly bonuses are determined, in part, by successful completion of technology training, and Vyas provides employees with time off and travel expenses as long as the course matches the business objectives and time line. Never one to preach what he doesn’t practice, Vyas also has to fulfill the 40-hour requirement.

Staff members also have the opportunity to lead monthly seminars on a specific technology topic. Audience members evaluate the performance in real-time to determine whether the presenter is eligible for a spot bonus award. For extra consideration for the quarterly incentive program, the presenter may demonstrate to management how the material has helped other team members in doing their jobs and implementing projects.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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