A lot of smart and driven people are in position to take leadership. But again, this is hard, mission-critical stuff. Our profession is still young, and it lacks the necessary framework and truly strategic best practices. I think we can change that over the next decade.
The bigger challenge, and perhaps the bigger impact over time, lies in the development of the next generation of leaders — both on the business side and in IT leadership roles. We need versatile, multidisciplinary, multicultural leaders who can think strategically about systems and patterns and who can take leadership of an organization and drive execution.
If you’re at a company that doesn’t develop this sort of leader deliberately, you need to foster that effort more deliberately. In most companies, people come into the IT function and stay there for 20 years, as opposed to being moved about and given different experiences and a wider aperture. You’ve got to make investments in future high-potential leaders.
There are only two things you can’t teach people: IQ and a work ethic. People either have them or they don’t. But you can improve people’s contributions by improving their experiences and their perspective. The challenge is to take really bright people who know a lot, who work hard and are frustrated, and open them up to new experiences. Things look different from different angles.
If you want to get people to understand the business of a railroad, put them in the yards. Not as a management trainee; let them go work in the yard. If you’re at Home Depot, let your high-potential people work in the store for a couple of years. Make investments in them. If you have a really good young business leader in the planning department, put him or her in IT to learn the technology. Think of the role of IT and the development of your people as a whole system. Culture, performance, and leadership are all interwoven.
S+B: Can you illustrate this idea of talent development within an IT context?
FELD: Sure. If somebody is a mainframe information management systems developer working on the distribution system for 20 years, he or she is not going to have a broad enough perspective to be an IT leader. If you want to improve the capabilities of such people, you’ve got to give them more and different experiences. You have to plan their career cycle — what you assign them to and how you control their movement — particularly if they’re high performers with high potential. If they’ve been working on operational systems for two years, they need to work on customer systems next.
Tom Nealon, now the CIO of JCPenney, used to be the CIO of Southwest Airlines. Before that, he was the CIO at Frito-Lay. When he joined Frito-Lay out of college, he spent a couple of years in computer operations, then four or five in systems development, and a couple of years in systems engineering. Then Tom moved out of IT on a round trip to the financial planning department for two years. Within 10 years, he had developed into a well-rounded leader who had seen the business from different places. He’d been a user, so now he knew why IT frustrates people. He’d been in operations, so he knew what a poorly designed system looks like, and what to do when you get a call in the middle of the night and there’s no documentation. It made him better at everything. At 32 years old, Tom was ready to become a vice president. By his mid-30s, he was Frito’s CIO.
If you’re in an organization where talent management, performance management, recruiting, and project staffing are all integrated into a vibrant workforce management system, you can have a great career progression without moving from one company to another.