Grow Your Own CIO

Internal development programs can nurture up-and-coming IT leaders while tackling real company issues.

Last summer, about 30 hand-picked IT managers convened in an executive classroom for the third session of CIO University, a leadership development program for would-be CIOs. The agenda was chock-full of sessions covering best practices for stakeholder management along with role-playing exercises to explore the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict resolution. Guest speakers included C-level executives as well as former attendees who had gone on to become CIOs. A post-session happy hour and dinner gave participants a chance to network, exchange insights and simply blow off steam.

It might sound like your typical leadership development seminar, but CIO University stands apart in several ways.

For one thing, the curriculum is fine-tuned to specifically meet the needs of IT management. For another, instead of being sponsored by a university or an IT trade association, with attendance open to IT execs from multiple organizations, this leadership program was homegrown by a single company for its high-performing IT staffers only.

Conceived and implemented by Kevin Hart, CIO at Clearwire Communications LLC in Kirkland, Wash., CIO U aims to serve the following three functions: nurture the next generation of IT leaders at the $274.5 million telecommunications upstart; act as a forum wherein employees can work on real management issues relevant to the company; and foster a culture of teamwork among Hart's 300-person IT staff.

Clearwire's CIO U classes are held for a full day once every quarter in rooms on loan from the University of Washington. Participants are given homework assignments in which they're asked to apply improvement initiatives in the workplace. While not every graduate is destined to hold the title of CIO, especially in a company like Clearwire with a relatively small IT staff, Hart says the experience attendees gain is invaluable to their careers and to their employers.

Hart initiated the program in 2006 when he was CIO at Level 3 Communications Inc., a $3.7 billion provider of telecommunications services with more than 1,000 IT staffers, and he took it with him when he joined Clearwire in 2009. (His CIO University is not to be confused with another program of the same name, through which the federal government in partnership with several universities offers graduate-level training in tech leadership.)

To date, Hart's CIO U has turned out more than 130 graduates at Clearwire and at Level 3 Communications. Though nobody has kept formal count, Hart says many graduates have gone on to become CIOs, with a good number planting the seeds for similar IT leadership programs at their new employers.

Hart and others who are engaged in the practice of "growing your own CIO" including tech execs at Direct Energy and Purdue Pharma LP contend that there are multiple benefits to conducting IT leadership training internally.

Despite the time and resources required to develop a program in-house, they say, internal training is still far more cost-effective than external programs, a factor that resonates at a time when corporate training budgets remain tight.

In addition, in developing an in-house curriculum, CIOs can tap human resources specialists, top executives and professionals from other areas of the business to tailor a course of study that matches the real-world problems plaguing individuals or the IT organization as a whole.

Internal programs help with recruitment and retention of high-performing IT personnel interested in career advancement, Hart and others say, but beyond that, they foster leadership development on an organizational level, a key benefit to the sponsoring company.

"You can send someone to California for a week and pay $10,000 for the individual experience, but the real value comes with having that experience collectively as a team. The team becomes better able to understand the context of working together and building relationships," says Hart. "It's about having people feel a real sense of investment in their career and in their future."

Clearwire: Real-World Problem-Solving

Andrew Macaulay, Clearwire's vice president of IT, attended CIO U as a Level 3 Communications employee and then again when he followed Hart to Clearwire. He also had a hand in shaping the current curriculum. He calls it a "hybrid," since it includes input from Clearwire's own top executives, many of whom give presentations during the session, along with contributions from outside experts who are brought in to teach some of the leadership-specific tracks.

Hart and other members of the Clearwire executive team teach the classes and make formal presentations on business challenges and goals while relating their own personal experiences. Outside specialists with credentials in topics such as stakeholder management, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence lead discussions on their areas of expertise.

To Macaulay's mind, CIO U's emphasis on real-world problem-solving with company peers is the real game-changer. "In an external class, you have a person or two from 10 different companies, thus no common examples, and everyone has a different perspective on a different list of problems," Macaulay says. "With this approach, people are already applying what they learn with peers in the classroom. They're problem-solving using these techniques on real issues that can benefit the company."

As an example, Clearwire's 2009 employee satisfaction survey uncovered dissatisfaction with the quality of communication between rank-and-file IT and upper management. As part of the CIO U curriculum, participants were charged with brainstorming changes to address that problem, and Hart set some specific benchmarks for the team.

By engaging in role-playing and applying conflict resolution techniques covered in their coursework, CIO U attendees came up with recommendations to close the gap, including weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports to go over a manager/employee checklist, an "onboarding" program to bring new IT employees up to speed, a directive to tie IT performance goals to company goals, and sponsorship of additional communication forums, like roundtable discussions and newsletters.

When a follow-up survey was conducted six months later to gauge progress, the IT team had made some impressive gains. "If there isn't a benefit to the company, then the whole value proposition falls apart," Hart says.

Direct Energy: Three Training Levels

Direct Energy, a $9 billion electricity and natural gas utility with operations in several North American markets, offers a three-tier IT leadership development initiative that blends both internal and external resources.

At the junior level, the company recruits from the top engineering schools and then has new hires participate in an intensive, company-run two-year training program. The training includes work toward a range of certifications and rotating assignments in different areas of the business, including stints in non-IT posts and in various locales around the world.

Midlevel IT folks may be selected to participate in a leadership program that was developed by Direct Energy's IT group but is run in conjunction with other companies and outside leadership experts, according to Kumud Kalia, Direct Energy's CIO. Top-level IT execs are encouraged to participate in webinars, attend seminars and enroll in external leadership development programs for a more customized training experience.

Leveraging both internal and external resources makes sense for a company of Direct Energy's size, Kalia says. Although Direct Energy is bigger than Clearwire and maintains a larger IT workforce, Kalia says it would be far too costly, in terms of both money and time, to develop and run such a diverse leadership-training program internally. In addition, he says he doesn't think there are enough high-level IT roles within the company, which employs about 500 IT personnel in all, to justify funding an internally run, CIO-specific program.

Nevertheless, Kalia feels strongly that IT leadership development on any scale is essential for attracting and nurturing top talent. "People don't want to join a company and have a great first year only to keep repeating the great first year for 10 years," Kalia says. "People care about career development. They seek out enhanced scope of responsibility, and if they're not getting it from their employer, they will go elsewhere. We want to make sure we have those things here."

Purdue Pharma: No Faking Internal Training

Purdue Pharma, a $3 billion pharmaceutical company, also champions a mix of internal and external IT leadership training. Each of the Stamford, Conn.-based company's 110 IT employees has an individual development plan, and there are rotating IT job assignments.

Moreover, a handful of high-potential IT managers are selected to participate in an internal executive-coaching program that's run by the CIO in conjunction with human resources, to get exposure to senior management responsibilities. In this program, individuals take a battery of leadership assessment tests and are coached individually by HR professionals and top IT managers to nurture their strengths and improve upon their weaknesses.

Throughout a 12-to-18-month period, participants are formally observed by the CIO, given assessments every three months and take part in sessions where they get feedback from their peers. So far, seven IT employees have gone through the program.

CIO Larry Pickett says an internal program works best on this level because participants can't manipulate the scenarios they encounter, like they could in external leadership programs. "In external programs, it's a case study you're working on, not a real-world example," Pickett explains. "Our training is based on actual observation in the workplace, and you can't fake it."

Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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