Rethinking People Leadership in IT: Four Key Findings for Improving IT Leader Selection, Performance and Succession
Digital innovations such as mobile devices, cloud computing and Big Data are dramatically reshaping information technology’s (IT) relationship with the business—and, therefore, the role of the chief information officer (CIO). In addition to overseeing their traditional responsibilities, today’s technology heads are increasingly being called upon to manage a host of new activities such as generating customer insight, transforming supply chains and driving additional sources of revenue.
While much has been written about the skills and knowledge (competencies) required for CIOs to succeed in this new environment, most of the existing information is anecdotal, lacking hard evidence. To fill this gap and put harder edges around the competencies that matter most, Russell Reynolds Associates, in partnership with Arthur Langer, Ed.D., of Columbia University, launched a major quantitative research study in the fall of 2012. The effort was designed to help sitting CIOs optimize their current performance, improve succession planning/management, develop the next generation of IT talent and help chief executive officers (CEO) make better decisions when hiring their next head of technology. Below is a summary of key findings, implications and recommended actions.
Three Key Questions:
1 Which Leadership competencies matter most in terms of IT leader
2 How effectively do IT leaders deliver against these competencies?
3 What actions distinguish firms that build the best IT leadership
Key Finding #1: Rather than technical ability, CIOs believe the key to IT leadership is driving results and change through people. However, CIOs see significant room for improvement in these areas.
The Graphic Explained: This graphic shows the percentage of CIOs who cite each competency as highly important (the dark blue bars) and the percentage of CIOs who feel their direct reports are highly effective at delivering against them (the light blue bars).
Key Takeaways (Figure 1):
- Key Importance Scores: CIOs rate people, results and change-related competencies as most important.* We believe this reflects the ongoing need for IT to ensure operational excellence (i.e., delivering IT projects on time, on budget and on quality) while simultaneously transforming the function to meet new business demands presented by innovations such as mobile devices, cloud computing and Big Data.
- Primary Gaps: Interestingly, while CIOs rate people, results and change-related competencies as most important, they also view these areas as most in need of improvement amongst rising IT leaders.
- Secondary Gaps: Other key importance/effectiveness gaps include Organizational Savviness, Courage, Business Acumen and Analytics, Commercial Acumen and Strategic Planning. These gaps are particularly relevant as they are central to effective strategic partnership with the business, which most IT leaders believe to be critical to the success of the IT function today.
- Blind Spots: Only about 40% of IT leaders rate Business Acumen and Analytics and Strategic Planning as highly important, and less than one-third view Commercial Acumen as highly important. We believe these low ratings represent significant blind spots. While conventional wisdom holds that effective partnership with the line is key, our findings suggest that a large number of IT executives may discount the specific competencies that are required for this task.
- While people, results and change-related competencies are commonly discussed, they are rarely featured as “musthave” capabilities in IT competency models. To ensure that these proficiencies are a key focus in rising IT leader performance and development, CIOs should ensure that these categories are prominently featured in existing competency models.
- CEOs looking to hire a new head of technology also may wish to utilize this information as the basis for competencybased interview questions.
Key Finding #2: There is a strong link between effective leadership development tactics and overall IT leader effectiveness.
The Graphic Explained: This graphic examines the perspectives of two groups of rising IT leaders: those at “privileged” firms who feel their mentors, managers, training and human resources (HR) departments all are highly effective at developing people skills (the dark blue bars) and those at “neglected” firms who say their mentors, managers, training and HR departments are merely average to poor (the light blue bars). Specifically, it shows how each group rates the effectiveness of their IT colleagues at delivering against each competency.
- IT leadership effectiveness is not a function of fate or luck. Rather, it is driven by organizational commitment to—and effectiveness at—systematically developing the people-leadership capabilities of IT leaders.
- IT leaders with organizations and managers who excel at developing people skills feel surrounded by colleagues who are highly effective across all competencies. In other words, developing strong people skills builds strong business skills.
- IT leaders should honestly assess their organization’s effectiveness at building leadership capabilities and invest in high-impact leadership development tactics accordingly (see page 6 for more detail).
Key Finding #3: Rising IT leaders are not getting the development they need from their organizations and managers.
The Graphic Explained: This graphic shows the percentage of rising IT leaders who feel their mentors, managers and HR departments are highly effective at developing their people-related skills.
- Despite the importance that IT leaders place on people skills for driving business success, few rising IT leaders feel their mentors, managers or HR departments are effective at developing those skills.
- IT leaders should partner with training teams and HR departments to identify key opportunities for improving the quality of leadership development efforts targeted to IT.
- At the same time, IT leaders must hold their IT management teams equally accountable for identifying and cultivating rising IT leadership talent.
Key Finding #4: To accelerate the identification and development of IT leadership talent, CIOs should focus on five key elements of development and hiring.
The Graphic Explained: This graphic examines the perspectives of two groups of rising IT leaders: those at “privileged” firms who feel their mentors, managers and HR departments all are highly effective at developing people skills (the dark blue bars) and those at “neglected” firms who say their mentors, managers and HR departments are merely average to poor (the light blue bars). Specifically, it shows the percentage of each group that rates its peers and manager (typically the CIO) as highly effective across five best practice tactics for development and hiring.
Key Takeaways (Figure 4):
- IT leaders at “privileged” firms feel surrounded by colleagues who effectively:
— Develop employees’ people skills through observational coaching and feedback.
— Hire candidates with effective people skills through rigorous assessment and role plays.
- IT leaders at “neglected” firms do not feel surrounded by colleagues who utilize the best practice development and hiring tactics cited above.
- IT leaders should not wait for their organizations to improve their formal approaches to leadership development. Each of the actions presented here should be carried out by IT managers and leaders in the field.
- IT leaders should challenge their own IT management teams to (a) provide more rigorous feedback and (b) refocus interviewing techniques to ensure a full assessment of the interpersonal and people management capabilities of candidates for managerial roles.
To help IT leaders optimize team performance, we have isolated below the eight competencies showing the greatest importance/effectiveness gaps referenced in Figure 1. In addition, for each competency, we offer recommended developmental experiences for improving effectiveness. This information should be useful for designing and implementing individual development plans for rising IT leaders.
As IT leaders face increasing expectations and changing business requirements, they must determine which skills and abilities will best carry them forward. We hope the findings from this study will provide a useful guide for identifying and building the capabilities required to succeed in the world of IT today.