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

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Letting up-and-coming leaders learn doesn't mean letting go of the reins altogether. Charting a course is exceedingly important when giving your best and brightest a shot at something new. "You have to set up the experience with the takeaways in mind," says MasterCard's Reeg. "It's got to be fundamental to the program that they learn something new." Reeg wanted Meister to run real-time, mission-critical services and manage a large, global team spread from Missouri to Mumbai.

Though Meister keeps succeeding, he says one of the benefits of new experiences has been learning how to fail. A few years ago, he was struggling to build a website using a new rich user-interface tool. His team was stymied by performance issues in the final days of testing. "Because we had a high level of trust across our organization and with our pilot customer, we were able to switch to an alternate technology, quickly redeploy the site incorporating our pilot customer's feedback and still hit production in time for our second customer's implementation," says Meister.

He witnessed other aspiring leaders refuse to admit mistakes for weeks or months, wasting time and money. "I've learned that if you're going to fail at something -- and there is enough trust across an entire team to admit that something is going to fail -- then fail quickly. The sooner you take responsibility, the better." That requires the CIO to create a culture that views failure as "a small setback to longer-term success," says Meister.

Turns out that advice also applies to the CIO's task of assigning up-and-coming IT leaders these opportunities. Sometimes a new on-the-job experience doesn't work out -- the environment is too political, the resources aren't there, the timing isn't right. "You have to get the balance right when it comes to pulling the plug on a new experience," says Finnerty of Applied Materials. Too early, and you may shortchange someone who could have been successful. Too late, "and you can burn out a great person or stop a career."

It comes down to matching the right experience to the right person, providing support while leaving room for growth, and constantly communicating about how things are going. Particularly in the early weeks of a new assignment, says Finnerty, it's important not just to be available to someone tackling a new experience but also to actively track how the project or role is going and make adjustments when necessary.

Finnerty doesn't want to smooth the course too much. "Part of the experience is learning that CIO environments are never easy," he says. But when things truly aren't going well, "it's all about being candid and open and saying, 'Here's the situation. How can we adjust it?'" says Finnerty. Maybe he needs to provide his protege with more political cover. Maybe more or different resources are required. Maybe a deadline should be changed.

"I'll always ask if there's something I can do. In some cases they'll say yes. In other cases, they'll say, 'Let me handle it, but let's talk about how to do it,'" says Finnerty. "In most cases, they solve it themselves."

Read more about careers in CIO's Careers Drilldown.

This story, "The path to the CIO's office: Real-world challenges required" was originally published by CIO.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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