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

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Make Them Stretch

Traditional succession planning often focuses more on "planning" than "success." Organizational charts, skills assessments, HR meetings and performance reviews are all integral to succession planning, but that planning falls short if it's unaccompanied by well-thought-out leadership development experiences. The best way to build leadership muscle is by exercising it. "To be a good leader, you have to have intuition," says Finnerty. "And the only way you develop intuition is through experience."

Picking the right experiences for IT executive development can be tricky. "There is a balancing act between what is required by the business and what is best for the individual's career development," says Finnerty, who talks to the members of his management team about their strengths, weaknesses and aspirations as part of a collaborative process of deciding on their next challenges. This can require patience -- there isn't always an appropriate opportunity available when the candidate is ready for one. "The key to maintaining balance is having an ongoing dialogue with people in your organization."

When available, big, bold moves are often best. Finnerty remembers a time early in his career when he'd been working primarily in financial systems development and was tapped to take over the data center. "It was a big stretch," he says. "But when the time came to move into the CIO role, I had broader and deeper experiences to pull from when making key strategic decisions."

When, later in his career, he was confronted with two major data center crises, he and his team were able to make better tactical decisions because of his data center background. "A new on-the-job experience stretches the individual's capabilities into new areas where they are not yet fully developed. If you're getting a job or an experience, and you're ready for it," Finnerty says, "it's not big enough."

When Capizzi was promoted to VP of technology at SBLI -- a newly created position that put him second-in-command to the CIO -- he wasn't just leading a new team, he was leading the team -- "the whole org chart," Capizzi explains. The former head of infrastructure had no experience with application development or e-commerce, service-level agreements or business processes. It took months of sleepless nights, working weekends and learning from mistakes before he got comfortable.

His CIO, Eric J. Bulis, had just taken on a stretch role himself, taking over operations in addition to IT. "We needed a strong emerging leader to step into these shoes -- both tactical and strategic -- to work with me on the bigger picture and take deep dives with me into execution where needed," Bulis says. "Paul had proven that he is able to operate outside of his comfort zone effectively. He knows how and when to defer to his subject-matter experts in areas where he is not the strongest, and how to create a team environment."

In 2006, when Applied Materials' Dunning took over management for one of the largest SAP implementations in the world (a two-year project affecting 16,500 users in 21 countries), he had SAP project experience. "But I hadn't done anything on this scale," he says. "Heck, no one had. We had 600 people on the project team, a bazillion processes, and we needed a breadth of skills on the business analyst side that was not easily found."

Dunning says the trial by fire was one of the most effective tools thus far for honing his leadership skills. Among the challenges: refining the project's scope when it was already underway; resetting business leaders' expectations for results; strengthening the partnership between business and IT through shared governance; and mastering the tactical requirements of a project larger than any he'd seen. Each obstacle brought revelations. He could have communicated better. He learned how to see IT projects through a CFO's eyes. Most important, he learned the value of decisive action.

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