The path to the CIO's office: Real-world challenges required

Ask Paul J. Capizzi about his career plans and he'll tell you, "I'm taking the stairs, not the elevator." It's an unlikely admission from the fast-talking New Yorker, who, at 36, has already risen to the number-two spot in IT at insurer SBLI USA.

It's not that Capizzi, a 2010 CIO Ones to Watch honoree, isn't ambitious. He simply wants to make sure he succeeds. "I'm very aggressive and I'm always doing something," says Capizzi, who just took -- and aced -- the life insurance agent test to beef up his business know-how. "But I'm not in a rush to get to a CIO position. I want to take advantage of all the people around me -- my peers, my direct reports, my managers -- and continue learning. I'll get there eventually, but I'll get there with a wealth of knowledge."

CIOs and up-and-comers agree -- on-the-job experiences trump traditional succession plans in preparing IT professionals to lead. Formal succession planning programs received the lowest effectiveness rating of any development opportunity in a CIO survey of 100 aspiring IT leaders. Although 60 percent were participating in such programs, only 17 percent found them to be very effective. On-the-job experiences rated higher: 76 percent said that steering an enterprisewide project, for example, was instrumental to their professional growth. (See "Learning from Leading.")

"Traditional programs fail when nothing comes out of them," says Robert Reeg, MasterCard's president of global technology and operations. "If an employee is recognized as high-potential and then is in the same job for five years, you're using succession planning as a tool in development. [You] need to understand the responsibility and the impact of labeling an employee as high-potential [and] make sure the potential is realized."

Successful IT succession planning needs legs -- real-life chances to learn valuable leadership lessons that last. Ask any CIO and they're likely to tell you that what best prepared them for the role was having seen -- and done -- it all: helming efforts in IT, such as starting up new teams or developing staff capabilities; leading corporate initiatives, such as executing major business process improvements or running enterprisewide projects; and tackling external challenges, including negotiating major contracts and identifying business opportunities. (See "10 Ways to Groom a Leader.")

Steve Finnerty, vice president of information technology and vendor services at Applied Materials, says having varied experiences is "the most important thing you can do to get to the CIO job and stay there." Ten percent of IT leadership development can happen in a classroom, says Finnerty, a Ones to Watch Judge who also held CIO positions with Kraft Foods, Johnson Controls and J.M. Huber. The rest happens on the clock.

To reap real benefits, however, these opportunities must be deliberately selected and delicately managed to balance risk and reward to the individual, the IT organization and the business as whole. "Your career is a portfolio of experiences, but it shouldn't be something random that happens," says Finnerty, who's sent more than a dozen CIOs into the world from his ranks. "It should be set up to allow leaders to go to their full potential." Making that portfolio pay off requires setting up experiences that are big enough for aspiring IT leaders to grow into and providing enough support to enable success -- but not so much oversight that they're stifled.

Finnerty's former direct report Simon Dunning, now Applied Materials' managing director of IT demand management and a Ones to Watch honoree, is the product of learning by doing throughout his 22-year career. "I have written code and pulled wires, worked out of multiple locations worldwide, managed eight SAP implementations or upgrades, reported to the business and reported to IT," says Dunning, who's seen peers in classic succession plans stagnate because they weren't challenged. "It is only when you are faced with real-life situations, forced outside of your comfort zone and put in positions where you have to make difficult decisions that you expand your core skill set." (See "Ones to Watch.")

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