yellow brick road
PHOTO: Akshay Nanavati | unsplash

The path to becoming a CIO these days can feel a lot like stepping into the Wizard of Oz. As CTO Stephen diFilipo recently said, “The path forward ... is like a yellow brick road. Lots of interesting persons on the journey including a scarecrow, a lion, and a tin person. This is not to mention a whole bunch of flying monkeys and a creepy folks behind a curtain. Oh yeah, there is a toxic witch. Being a CIO is a we’re not in Kansas anymore experience.” Given this, how can existing CIOs remove the obstacles to create a path forward for future CIOs?

Create a Diverse Team to Build a Future With More Diverse CIOs

CIOs need to start by looking for people who aren't like them. Their goal should be to bring together different viewpoints and experiences. This includes people who can challenge their organizations. This way CIOs create diversity of thought and backgrounds among team members and also ensure the people who become CIOs are more diverse.

Delivering on diversity requires a change in the culture around recruiting and building career paths for existing team members. To do so, CIOs need to face historical organizational practices, habits and assumptions. They have to rigorously reassess their hiring practices to remove any bias or potentially limiting prerequisites. This means building an IT team that includes people without an IT background.

For a more diverse team to succeed, it is critical that CIOs avoid insider language that creates (or reinforces) private tribes. CIOs need to help everone improve their communication skills as well. Their task will be to create a work environment where staff can challenge them and each other and still find a way to work together and move forward, even if consensus hasn't necessarily been reached. Some conflict is healthy. However, CIOs need to be careful not to assemble a team with destructive conflict. At the same time as building internal diversity, it is important to encourage team members to develop their own diverse network of individuals within and without your organization. As CIO Melissa Woo said, “perhaps what needs to be recognized is that there are non-tech positions that deserve to be on CIO cabinet table to have a successful leadership team.”

Related Article: CIOs Step Up to the Role of Change Leader

Creating Experiences and Mentorship to Train CIOs

Creating ongoing opportunities to gain experience and mentoring is critical to clear the road for future CIOs. CIOs need to make this a habit. This involves determining the events, experiences and skills their organization needs and then providing internal opportunities, mentoring elsewhere within your business, as well as mentoring in the general tech space to help build those skills.

At the same time, it is important to ensure the team has external connections and external mentors as well. This includes learning to speak the language of the business. Lastly, CIOs need to make these opportunities visible so everyone has access. CIO David Seidl said, “The last thing is that there are times when you need to stop investing, to recognize a mistake, point someone to something different, or have a hard conversation. That's the tough side of this but is also really worth the effort involved.”

CIOs need to understand the implicit biases that exist and develop paths (and more importantly, remove obstacles) to mitigate those biases in their organizations. And once people are in the organization, mentorship is part of the formula. Active advocacy on the employee's behalf, either within the institution or outside, is just as important.

Related Article: DevOps and the Culture of Inclusion

Helping Future Leaders Get Experience With Business Leaders

As a starting point, CIOs should bring future leaders along into top level leadership meetings even if it's out of their depth. They can quickly learn a lot, and senior leaders are often gracious with newbies. In addition, create a rotation program for promising leaders and put them into three six-month long rotations into different organizations to get real-world experiences. I did one when I started my career and can attest it gave me wisdom beyond my years.

Additionally, CIOs should make time for people to explain the world as they see it. People grow the fastest when they play with someone much better than they are at the sport. The best mentors do the same. CIO Jim Russell said, “Discuss the financial, organizational and people challenges before, during and after a new project. Help early tech staff to understand that technology can't solve everything. Promote business training and learning in addition to tech certs.”

Cross-Training to Build Skills and Horizons

Clearly, cross training needs to be strategic. CIOs need to figure out the skills they may need and seek them out. In terms of team members CIOs should take this perspective and help people know where gaps exist, where they're strong, and how to improve. To broaden people's horizons, pair team members with influential businesspeople from various business units to have them bond both business and personally. You can take the extra step of sending them to business conferences with the same people.

CIOs stress that cross-training doesn't have to come through a degree. What might be more important is to coach future leaders into understanding how their skills are transferable to other disciplines. It is important to inspire people to find learning both formally and informally. The value of someone who understands IT and another domain is hard to qualify. Michael Krigsman of CXO Talks put it this way: “Cross-training for anyone in business leadership is essential. For the CIO, siloes are a kiss of death. Smart people learn. Cross-training gives them perspective from the different biz functions that make up your organization.” And on the strategy side, Vijay Gurbaxani, Taco Bell Professor at the University of California, said that “a few years ago at a CIO meeting I was at, someone asked for a show of hands if the CIO had taken a strategy class. It was a surprisingly low percent. With digital so central to success, that’s not sustainable.” CIOs clearly have work to do too.

Parting Words

It may be a yellow brick road, but everyone encounters challenges along the road. It is most important to find your authentic place and surround yourself with people who can fill in gaps. This is good learning for any future leader — including the CIO — to lead the transformation agenda.