How to nurture the next generation of CIOs

Technology has become more potent yet more complex. CIOs must play a larger role across their organisation, while developing future leaders 
Image of bird "nurturing" new CIOs

Technology has transformed business over the past two decades, empowering organisations to do things better and do new things. But as the pervasiveness of the IT function has increased, so too have the demands placed upon its leaders.

On the one hand, technology’s ascendance from a back-office necessity to something that creates tangible, attributable value and growth has been a good thing. IT functions and their leaders have risen in prominence, casting aside their legacy as an “order entry”, reactive function and playing a more strategic, proactive role.

On the other hand, these historically inward-facing functions have been thrust into a spotlight which demands much greater integration with the business and its growth efforts, along with a much more externalised mindset.

Earmark those who you see have the beginnings of leadership potential, then tell them

Recent years have seen a recasting of the role of the CIO. This is partly due to rising expectations from boards, but it’s also thanks to lobbying on the part of the IT profession itself to be embraced as legitimate members of the C-suite, with respect and influence on a par with the CFO.

Yet amid this growing prominence of technology and its leaders, ripple effects have emerged. Many organisations now face current or looming succession challenges.

Greater specialism, greater silos

Advances in technology create increasing complexity, which in turn requires greater levels of specialism within teams. In and of itself, this is no bad thing – it has enabled businesses to develop technical capabilities which have yielded advantages over their peers. But from a leadership pathway perspective, increased specialism tends to lead to narrower and less generalist competencies.

Building teams with ever-deeper levels of expertise will only lead to “smarter silos” unless efforts are made by today’s CIOs to spotlight future leadership talent for the CIO roles of tomorrow.

“Candidates today have to be more adept than ever at managing a breadth of knowledge,” says Caroline Sands, partner and head of CIO & technology officers practice at global executive search firm Odgers Berndtson. She points to evolving areas like robotics, AI, machine learning and cloud, the challenges which come with legacy systems and infrastructure, the growing currency of data and the rapidly increasing focus on cybersecurity and risk. 

“But beyond this, as CEOs increasingly turn to their CIOs to help shape business strategy and operational decisions, CIOs also need strengths in relationship management, commercial acumen and customer awareness,” Sands says. “This is a tall order unless people are prepared for it.”

You’re not just there to talk about infrastructure or engineering, in the same way that the CFO doesn’t just weigh in on costs and the CMO doesn’t just talk about ads

So how can businesses harness the benefits of deep, specialist capabilities, while enabling leaders to emerge with the breadth of competencies needed to meet boards’ expectations?

Sands believes the first step lies in being proactive. “Earmark those who you see have the beginnings of leadership potential, then tell them. You need up-and-coming talent to understand that they have been identified for a pathway, and you need to know it’s something they’re interested in.”

This provides an opportunity to begin broadening their development with career steps, projects and responsibilities that will stretch them and build leadership foundations, Sands adds, “but would otherwise – without that communication – seem a distraction from their assumed specialist career track”.

Shedding your functional skin

A defining characteristic of the C-suite – and a common stumbling block for those joining for the first time – is the shifting role expected of its constituents. Like others around the table, CIOs are expected to shed their functional skin and operate strategically and effectively as a member of a collective leadership team, able to make decisions requiring significant cross-functional awareness.

While CIOs must represent technology at the highest level in the organisation, there’s a broader role to be played, argues Patrick Knight, a technology and transformation expert who’s held CIO roles at TUI, Rentokil Initial and, most recently, Travis Perkins. 

Taking a C-suite position means weighing in and adding value to debates and decisions across the business, Knight says. If a CIO has spent their career focused inwardly on their own function, without getting under the skin of the business, its market dynamics and the complexities of its operations, they’ll struggle to add value at the top table. 

“You’re not just there to talk about infrastructure or engineering, in the same way that the CFO doesn’t just weigh in on costs and the CMO doesn’t just talk about ads.” 

This shift in focus won’t occur overnight. It requires today’s leaders to create the opportunity for their teams to develop broad experience and a thick skin. And it requires individuals who aspire to such roles to take the initiative themselves and invest in their own development.

Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan and currently the UK’s number one ranked CIO, says there’s a particular moment when he can spot if someone has the potential for executive leadership.

“It’s when an individual begins to prioritise cross-functional communication, stakeholder management and outcomes, rather than the nitty-gritty detail of the ‘stuff’ that’s being done,” he says. “When someone really starts to lean-in to nurturing relationships and the impact of what’s being created, rather than how to create it – that’s the point at which we say ‘you’re ready’.”

Attias says he then starts to delegate – and not just in functional tasks. He provides exposure at senior levels, aiming to “empower people to grow into a CIO-potential candidate”.

IT as a business partner

As organisations use more technology, there’s inevitably more people in the technology function to design, build or manage it. In larger organisations a CIO can find themselves leading hundreds or even thousands of technology professionals.

This carries a risk of a silo mentality, with growing numbers of people operating in isolation from the business and its outcomes.

Candidates today have to be more adept than ever at managing a breadth of knowledge

“Partnering is critically important – that cannot be underscored enough,” adds Knight. “If your engineers or product folks are buried in their own silo and detached from the business, how can they hope to advise solutions? Or to identify areas in which technology can bring value, be that through reduced cost or greater effectiveness? If we’re not embedded within the business, we abdicate our responsibility to add value.”

Attias agrees. “It’s crucial to ensure that your people overlap as much as possible, both within the IT function, but also across the organisation. Agile project teams are a powerful way of getting different people and diverse experience together, and focusing everyone on the outcomes, not the process or the tech.”

Searching for talent

At first glance, the growing variety of functional knowledge and organisational, stakeholder and commercial savvy demanded of today’s CIOs may seem a sizeable recruitment and development challenge. But it is in fact opening the door to a wider and more diverse pool of talent than would have been available in simpler times.

“We’re a charity so we can’t compete for talent in the same way as a bank or a retailer,” says Attias. “So we have to be creative.” For example, Anthony Nolan uses apprenticeships, which Attias says “are widely misunderstood and undervalued”, to bring in great people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and school leavers, for instance. 

About 5% of its workforce is enrolled in a digital literary apprenticeship, he adds, helping to build a potential pipeline of talent within the organisation. “We retrain people from other disciplines and we retrain our own internal colleagues.”

Such claims are often made, usually as proof-points for diversity claims. But in the case of Anthony Nolan, creative ways of finding talent have paid off. “We recruited someone from our internal admin operations team. She had no background or training in technology, but she understood the charity, our patients, our platforms and how we operate. Five years later she’s our director of product, responsible for product design and development for the entire organisation.”

The charity’s diversity efforts have also been successful, Nolan says, with half of its developers being female. It’s also working to ensure diversity in cognitive, soceioeconomic and racial areas, he adds, which is particularly important given the risks of building biases into AI.

Sands agrees. “It’s about mindset, not skillset – that’s what will yield strong future CIOs.”