Grow your own CIO: How in-house training pays off

Internal leadership training programs nurture up-and-coming leaders while keeping the problem-solving in-house.

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In late August, in the heat of the summer doldrums, a team of 30 or so hand-picked IT managers convened in an executive classroom for session No. 3 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 went 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 a couple of significant ways.

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

Conceived and implemented by Kevin Hart, CIO at Clearwire Communications 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 whereby employees can work through real-world 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 session every quarter in rooms on loan from the University of Washington, typically with one or two days per quarter of follow-up homework 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 companies.

Hart initiated the program in 2006 in his past role as CIO at Level 3 Communications, a $3.7 billion provider of telecommunications services with more than 1,000 IT staffers, and he took the program 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 programs in tech leadership.)

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

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

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