​How can CIOs help create the next generation of IT leaders?

Four experts give their best-practice tips for CIOs who are keen to develop their talent.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

IT leadership is a constant work in progress. A confluence of fast-changing business demands and technological advances mean CIOs must work hard to keep their skills fresh and up-to-date.

Tech Pro Research: IT leader's guide to achieving digital transformation

So what do these requirements mean for next-generation IT leadership? Here, four experts offer their advice to CIOs who are keen on developing new expertise.

Create a mentorship programme to develop commercial aptitude

Liberty technology director Martin Draper has run various mentorship schemes for next-generation CIOs during his career. It is an approach he is keen to replicate at the luxury retailer -- and he believes great technology professionals should act as an individual focus for a range of technical and business concerns.

"Next-generation CIOs should be the point in an organisation at which everything meets," he says.

"To be successful, CIOs must have a view of the end-to-end picture. The next-generation CIO must have technical, commercial, and business process visibility. The people I've aspired to in my career have held that combination of skills. Broad experience is absolutely critical."

Draper believes that the key characteristic for up-and-coming CIOs will be an ability to differentiate themselves from the people who work internally at technology companies.

Businesses are likely to build much closer relationships with external partners in the cloud era. Such partnerships could mean some companies reduce the size of their IT departments and employees must prove they are worthy of being retained.

"The big consultancies know their software products but there are few people in these firms' customer account practices who have worked in verticals. The awareness of end-user strategy in vendor companies is still under-developed," says Draper, who prefaced his time in retailing with business intelligence consulting across a range of sectors.

"One of the areas that I believe I have an advantage is that I have worked in a mixture of consultancy and end-user businesses. I've had the opportunity to look at different commercial aspects in a series of industries. That allows me to automatically act as the individual in the organisation who maps business challenges with technical capability."

Act like an executive sponsor and help staff gain strategic experience

To increase his skills base as a nascent IT professional, Omid Shiraji completed the now defunct masters in information leadership at City University, London. He benefited from the broad approach of the course, which provided both academic theory and practical experience. Now, as interim CIO at Camden Council, Shiraji remains committed to helping the next generation of IT leaders gain a foothold in the profession.

He draws attention to two key specific activities. First, Shiraji has helped sponsor a graduate programme in IT leadership at Camden. Two recent graduates have been recruited, one of whom happens to have a degree in computing. Shiraji led the change programme internally to ensure the graduates provided a good fit.

"I wanted to recruit individuals based on attitude and aptitude, rather than technical competence," he says. "It can be tough to find people and to convince them that a technical background isn't everything when it comes to the next generation of IT leadership. When you find those people, they can require a lot of reassurance."

Informal activities are important, too. As part of his technology leadership programme, Shiraji has introduced a shadowing system, where nominees within the IT team attend senior leadership team meetings. There is no prerequisite in terms of skills and capabilities. The key, says Shiraji, is that shadowing allows people to contribute.

"Shadowing builds appetite and helps IT professionals understand the role of the next-generation information leader," he says. "The indicators for success for me will be that we will have a very different make-up at senior IT gatherings in the future. I don't necessarily want a set of IT leaders who have a strong technology background. I just want good people who ask great questions."

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    Jonathan Mitchell, non-executive director at Harvey Nash and former CIO at Rolls Royce, says while modern IT leaders are still responsible for the overall effectiveness of system and services, they are spending more and more time in other areas of business. This engagement creates big opportunities for next-generation CIOs.

    "The connection between the CIO and business partners is now occurring at a much higher level," he says. "That's the direction we're heading in -- the digital leader as an agent of change is on the rise, while overhead and service provider roles are on the wane. CIOs are now truly embroiled in business strategy and the direction of the company."

    This emphasis on change has led some experts to suggest that CIOs could be surpassed by new up-and-coming C-suite positions, such as chief digital officer and chief data officer. The rise of these new roles might leave up-and-coming IT professionals to conclude that their senior career objectives would be better served by avoiding the CIO role.

    Mitchell is unconvinced. While he has heard anecdotal evidence of firms appointing CDOs to lead digital change, there are executives in other organisations who believe a CIO's hard-won experience of running transformation is worth its weight in gold. IT leaders should similarly ensure their incumbent tech talent is fit for purpose in a digital age.

    "It's such a wide landscape that you can't make sweeping generalisations," says Mitchell. "I'm sure the boards of big businesses are shrewd enough to work out what their IT leaders can do and what they can't do. Your role, as a CIO, is to make sure your next-generation capability is fit for those demands."

    Make IT professionals focus on assembling, integrating and curating

    Like Mitchell, Paul Chapman, who is CIO at technology specialist Box, says the move towards digital transformation requires a rewiring of operating models. Up-and-coming IT professionals, who aspire to senior IT leadership roles, must recognise the scale of change and develop the capability to help their businesses thrive in the digital age.

    "Constant change is today's steady state, and to stay relevant IT professionals need to constantly reinvent themselves, too," says Chapman. "In many ways, IT professionals have already learnt the macro skills to better prepare themselves for disruptive change. In today's world, where speed and agility are key, a willingness to let go and adapt to change is a key foundational skill for the next generation of IT."

    Chapman says next-generation, digital natives have grown up being educated by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Apple. Chapman believes these entrants engender a new style of workplace, one that is much more open, social, and collaborative. CIOs must ensure they are helping to develop a new style of technology professional and, therefore, IT leader.

    "IT used to be about having competence in every field, but today it is about focusing on differentiating value and meeting outcomes," he says. "Skills development now is much more about assembling, integrating and curating, than it is about building. IT professionals must recognise that shifting IT skills to higher value activities is key."

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