Grooming Future CIOs

This is the final installment in a three-part series of articles addressing the career path of the IT executive. Part 1 discussed the road to CIO. Part 2 addressed the emergence of the next generation of CIOs -- chief executives who are redefining the profession by becoming business thought leaders as well as technology leaders. This article discusses the importance of identifying and developing the CIOs of the future.

There are some CIOs who are well known for grooming and developing future CIOs. But overall, there is a need for IT as an industry to take a greater interest in developing its future leaders. Quite simply, the baby boomer generation is approaching retirement age. Over the next 10 years there will be more people retiring than coming into the workforce, particularly in IT, with universities graduating fewer IT students now than five years ago. Technology, frankly, is not perceived as the "strike it rich" field it was during the technology boom of the '90s, before the dot-com bubble burst. Additionally, there is a perception that jobs are moving offshore and there is less money to be made. As a result, fewer college students are going into the IT field.

The relatively high turnover rate of CIOs only compounds the situation. With an average tenure of three to five years -- about the length of time to complete a major IT project -- CIOs who are considering moving on to other challenges should be grooming their replacements.

Unlike their CFO counterparts, however, who have a fairly well-defined "CFO track" for career progression and for educational and certification requirements, the CIO career path is less formal. In fact, the Regional Leadership Forum (RLF) offered by the Society for Information Management (SIM) is one of very few nondegree programs dedicated to training future IT executives. While the RLF teaches leadership, team-building, creative thinking, listening skills, global business skills and business ethics, such programs alone are not enough to ensure that current IT executives will be prepared to take over as the next generation of CIOs. Instead, CIOs themselves need to take an active role in grooming future leaders.

Identifying Emerging Leaders

Nobody becomes a CIO by accident. Traditionally, they have started out as programmers and analysts and worked their way up to project management. Along the way they have been given more and more leadership, business and administrative responsibility, until their managerial tasks start to outweigh their technical responsibilities. They continue through further promotions to the director and vice president levels until they reach the "C suite."

Typically, a CIO should have an heir apparent, someone who is obviously being groomed as the future CIO. Or a CIO may have more than one lieutenant or deputy in place, presenting a ready pool of potential CIOs. Within the current crop of successful CIOs, most emerged as leaders within their organizations and showed a genuine interest in the business enterprise along the way.

The important thing is to identify two or three people in your organization who have demonstrated leadership potential. In addition, look for people who have the technical know-how and a recognized track record for getting work done accurately and delivering on time. Also, seek people who show promise in the areas of strategic thinking, business acumen and leadership style -- individuals who have the ability to think in terms of profit and loss rather than costs, and to look outside the borders of IT. Beyond this, identify people who possess the personality traits of successful chief executives, most notably composure, confidence, empathy, energy and humility.

Grooming Future Leaders

Once you have identified a few potential leaders, start the grooming process. This involves first giving them more and more management responsibility, such as hiring, reviewing and mentoring other staffers. Today's CIOs also need to be trained in regulatory compliance and business issues. And they need to develop some of the same leadership attributes found in successful CEOs and the same nimbleness as the new generation of CFOs.

Preparing the next crop of CIOs for these increased responsibilities and expectations will take more than giving them additional accountability. It will require mentoring, providing educational opportunities and exposing them to the business side of the organization. Here are a few things that organizations can do to cultivate future IT leaders:

  • Provide additional leadership training through RLF and other programs.
  • Encourage them to obtain an MBA.
  • Include them in senior-level staff meetings.
  • Get them more involved in the strategy, budgeting and leadership of the organization.

If you identify potential leaders and invest in their futures, you will have a better chance of keeping them interested and invested in your organization.

You will also be creating a crop of IT executives who will be prepared to take over as the next generation of CIOs. Lastly, having a potential successor or two frees you, the incumbent CIO, to take on your next career challenge, perhaps beyond information technology, at your current employer, or to move on to bigger and better CIO opportunities elsewhere.

Mark Polansky is a senior client partner and leader of the Information Technology Center of Expertise in North America at Korn/Ferry International. He is based in the company's New York office and can be reached at

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