Creating Chief Information Officers (CIO) for the future

The job descriptions of an ‘Information Officer’ or an ‘ Information Technology (IT) Manager’ are no longer limited to IT hardware and software maintenance and MIS operations (Management Information Systems), even in Bangladesh. Multinationals and local conglomerates have realised that IT translates to more than running the day-to-day automated business operations. When used strategically, it can be used to gain competitive advantages or a spirited edge over rival businesses. This is the reason why companies are investing heavily to create IT leaders or Chief Information Officers (CIO) for the future.

However, resources are very limited in the local market and mainstream management is not well groomed. Most companies are found struggling to ensure business continuity when somebody moves out. Important initiatives need to be taken, from a strategic point of view, to mitigate such crisis. It will be most critical to educate the management on IT changes and IT leaders need to be developed on a continual basis. Of course, retention of existing leaders remains unconditional.
The Chief Executive Officers or business chiefs must put proper thought and effort to secure investment and to develop CIOs for the future. They must disentangle themselves from the stereotype that CIOs are actually just engineers. They must feel that a CIO is a person who demonstrates leadership with a mixture of technical knowledge, business understanding and the capability of aligning business and technology- and that these things cannot be expected from training or academic backgrounds alone. This combination of traits requires structured training, coaching, mentoring, and so on.
Management makes a common mistake of comparing the new concept of CIO leadership development with the history of the development of the first generation CIOs (who are exceptionally grown, business savvy, technical people) at the cost of time, effort and resources. If the CIOs are developed with proper guidelines and planning, it ultimately cuts down on resource wastage and significantly reduces risks. So who will develop the second generation CIOs?
It is imperative that the CIOs of today (or the Bangladeshi 1st generation CIOs) create CIOs for the future. They must be able to groom replacements that are ‘Business Ready’ and can take on the challenges of working in a growing IT-intensive business environment. Current leaders are retiring fast. Also, there are not too many IT graduates these days because of the growing demand for business professionals. So the need is profound. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find and recruit people with the right mix of business and technical know-how. So how can CIOs choose from amongst a diversity of young budding IT professionals and finally mould them into successful CIOs for the future?
One may begin with succession planning, because nothing apparently succeeds like succession. It traverses beyond the mundane affairs of getting subordinates to perform day-to-day tasks and looks ahead into engaging them into the business’ strategic thinking process. What is required is a good, flexible plan that adjusts to the company’s changing business environment. The human resources department should work in coordination, to place candidates in the CIO office.
The first task is to identify a set of skills considered necessary for each job in the department, and then use that to evaluate the development possibilities for employees. Once an assessment is complete, CIOs will begin to plan ways to shape these skills into those of a leader.
The second step is to identify how far down the hierarchical ladder to plan for? Panning should begin considerably down the line so that there is no void and when someone moves up internally, there should be other people to fill in their shoes.
Next, a thorough performance appraisal system should be used to match performance with the assessed skills. For IT, this includes identifying an employee’s strengths in leading teams and developing strategy, examining areas for further technical and management growth, and a broad evaluation of current opportunities and employee’s readiness to step into those positions.
The following step is to identify a handful of employees with high potentials. The process is intricate and involves understanding the employee, knowing his strengths, receiving 360-degree feedback from peers, etc. They must then be put to the test. The candidates can be made to manage projects of importance, allowed to sit in top level management meetings, encouraged to perform key tasks for the CIO, such as planning, budgeting, forecasting, etc. It is crucial for CIOs to guide them and to create a safety net, lest they under perform. These development plans may be standardised, however, it is important to ensure that they are customised to and works for each individual, and kept open to change.
Mentoring and coaching are indispensable. Mentoring should be done early, and often. CIOs should train future IT stars on and off the job, such that they are ready to accept the big challenge. Teaching them how to think strategically and delegating critical tasks can prepare direct subordinates for this. It should give them an understanding of how the business makes decisions. An appropriate mentorship program, with handbooks and guidance notes can be useful. Good mentors should also purvey workplace advancement skills. They can teach their reports to never stop asking questions, to be decisive, to learn to listen, to admit and acknowledge shortcomings and finally to treat each job as though it were their last.
Furthermore, many firms in the other countries make use of something called a ‘shadow program’ in which the subordinates get a direct opportunity to follow the CIO and find out for themselves, what their jobs actually are. This enables them to get a feel of what it is like to be at the top and solve pieces of the business IT puzzle.
Finally creating an IT leader means making room for him/her at the top and at the same time, it means establishing a fast track that allows potential IT leaders to reach that destination within a planned, organised and systematic ‘Executive Development Program’.

The writer is the head of IT infrastructure and operations of AKTEL and the author of ‘ISP Setup Manual’.

The Daily Star >> Write-up – Sufi Faruq Ibne Abubakar >> Date: Monday, July 7, 2008

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