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How to Develop the Next Generation of IT Leaders

How to Develop the Next Generation of IT Leaders

Retirement, outsourcing and a tight talent supply are thinning IT's leadership ranks. CIOs talk about the problem and share tactics for growing tomorrow's leaders

The first full-career CIO generation is beginning to retire. Others are increasingly taking on broader responsibilities or moving out of IT and into other business leadership roles

Barbra Cooper started as a CIO when the position was still called "VP of IS." In her more than 30 years in IT, she's seen the role become ever more strategic; now the CIO is in the unique position of being the C-level officer who can "see across the entire enterprise."

The CIO for Toyota Motor Sales USA thinks tomorrow's CIOs will be even more strategic and influential. But Cooper also worries about the future business and technology changes they face. "The next 10 to 20 years are going to be challenging," she says. As she talks about the challenges that lie ahead, the question arises: Where will the IT leaders come from to tackle them?

It's a question more and more IT executives are asking themselves. CIOs are moving up and out. The first full-career CIO generation is beginning to retire. Others are increasingly taking on broader responsibilities or moving out of IT and into other business leadership roles as the position evolves beyond its technology roots (see "How CIOs Can Benefit From Having Dual Roles"). In fact, CIO's 2008 State of the CIO report found that 56 percent of CIOs surveyed say long-term strategic thinking and planning is the executive leadership skill most critical in their current role, followed by collaboration and influence (47 percent) and expertise running IT (39 percent).

At the same time, many CIOs don't know who would lead IT if they left tomorrow. When you consider that just 17 percent of respondents to the State of the CIO survey cited people development as a critical leadership competency, that's not surprising.

Demographic factors are also at play. The Baby Boomers are bowing out: the first ones reach retirement age in 2011. Fewer young people are pursuing IT careers: just over 8,000 received a BS in computer science last year, according to the Computing Research Association.

The skills to be CIO have also changed as the role has shifted from technologist to business strategist. It used to be that "we could afford to let the business tell us what they wanted us to do, be good at delivering it and keep our jobs," says Cooper. "Now, the physics and velocity of business and its demands mean you can't afford to wait until something happens."

Indeed, CEOs now look to the CIO to act more as a strategic business leader and less as a function head. TAC Worldwide CEO Robert Badavas says he seldom speaks about technology with his CIO; instead the two talk about "shaping the business value to our clients," he says. To be successful, he notes, the CIO needs to understand the value proposition of the business. "By staying in the silo of technology, HR, accounting or any other," says Badavas, "you're not going to be as valuable to the business." Or to the CEO.

With all that in mind, CIOs today must groom not only competent replacements for themselves but also next-generation IT leaders who are "business ready" and able to succeed in a more IT-intense and integral business environment, say leadership specialists.

"There's a skills gap that's been identified between CIO and one or two levels down," says Harvey Koeppel, executive director of the Center for CIO Leadership, which is funded by IBM. He points to managing talent, business process transformation and cross-organization leadership as skills that CIOs need to develop in their staff.

Future IT leaders know they need these skills to ascend the ranks. The ability to manage up, build relationships and understand business strategy were deemed critical for professional advancement in a survey of the winners of the 2008 Ones to Watch award, presented annually by CIO magazine and the CIO Executive Council, to recognize IT's rising stars and the CIOs who've nurtured them.

Unless today's CIOs take the time now to invest in tomorrow's leaders, what looms ahead is a potential leadership void that threatens the value proposition of IT, the legacy of the profession and the very health of business and the overall economy.

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