Introduction

What differentiates between success and mediocrity in organisations? Studies show that the high performing leaders are the ones most relied upon to drive the business performance in the years to come. Whether it is the delivery of strategic projects, cost stripping, or managing customer relationships, high performing leaders are the difference between success and mediocrity. High performing employees have a disproportionately higher impact on results. This means that identifying and developing future high performers is a critical priority for any organisation. CIOs have a responsibility to find and nurture these star performers in IT organisations.

While it is easier to name current high performers, identifying high potential future leaders (i.e. stars) is not so easy. Further, once identified, developing and retaining potential leaders is another challenge. This article aims to help CIOs develop  strategies to find and develop future IT leaders.

Future leaders will most probably emerge from today’s high performing employees. Current performance is a predictor of future performance. Indeed 93% of the stars are high performers. Some believe the potential depends on innate ability and the right experience. Leadership skills and ambition to succeed are also seen as indicators of potential. CIO Executive Board conducted a major study in 2006, defining a high potential employee as someone who has a 75% chance of being a top quartile performer at the next level (e.g. junior to middle management or middle to senior management). Only about 8% of the employees have a meaningful chance of being a top performer.

The study found that three indicators of high potential are strong ability, engagement and aspiration to succeed.

  • Ability is a combination of innate and learned skills. These include both technical and interpersonal skills as well as the ability to learn new skills and behaviours. Studies have repeatedly shown that the ability to learn from experience is what differentiates successful from unsuccessful executives.
  • Aspiration indicates to what extent the employee wants to advance and influence, seeks recognition and financial rewards and enjoys the job.
  • Engagement shows the commitment to the organisation, willingness to go the extra mile and intent to stay with the organisation.

Employees who don’t have a good balance of these three attributes tend to fall short. “Unengaged stars” have the ability and aspiration but are not committed to the company (high flight risk). “Dreamers” have aspiration and engagement but lack the ability to succeed at the next level. While “mis-aligned stars” have the ability and engagement but no aspiration to succeed and rise.

Figure 2 – Falling short of the ‘star’ potential

Understanding the profile of current high performing leaders, who are at a higher level in the organisation, on these three dimensions provides a good benchmark profile. Assess how employees on the level below score on these attributes, using feedback from managers, peers and employees. Compare to the benchmark and then make a judgement on how likely these are to be top performers at the next level.

Case for IT leadership development

In a recent Australian IT leadership survey by Donovan Leadership, many opinion leaders said that the professional development of technology leaders was best done within a framework that links performance assessment, and peer and client feedback with the values and leadership behaviours of the company. Opinion leaders believe that many innovative approaches are being used internationally for leadership development.

The changing technology landscape is increasing the need for developing future IT leaders. The major generational shift associated with baby boomers retiring and the exponential rate of technology change is a leadership challenge. Web 2.0, social networking and trends like Software as a service means IT leaders need to give up control and accept a more collaborative leadership style.

Not developing IT leaders will increase the gap between IT and business leaders. We may find people being promoted who don’t have the right people management and commercial skills or understanding of how the business works. Attracting and retaining Gen-Y and other new talent will become even harder.

Development Strategies

Although only about 8% employees are likely to become high potential future leaders, this percentage varies greatly between organisations. Organisation culture (quality, openness, recognition and perseverance) improves employee potential. The quality of an employee’s managers (both present and past) also influences potential.  Improvements in the culture and leadership will increase the proportion of emerging leaders.

Multiple strategies are used for the development of high potential future leaders. These include classroom training, group learning, selected job assignments and coaching / mentoring.

Classroom training and Group learning

  1. Provide training to the emerging leaders in different facets of general business. Understanding finance / accounting, marketing and people management as well as industry specific training on supply chain, credit etc will help them get a fuller understanding of the business dynamics and help learn the language of the business.
  2. Leading graduate universities in Australia and overseas run special management development programs. Depending on your budgets these are great ways to expand horizons, interact with other leaders and obtain new perspectives.
  3. Clarify how senior leaders are expected to behave. Let these leaders see how values and behaviours demonstrated by senior leaders support corporate strategy, culture and priorities. Encourage greater interaction with influential leaders from within and outside. Use guest speakers to educate and challenge.
  4. IT staff are keen to develop their technical skills but don’t show similar interest in their personal development or soft skills. This requires a willingness to take oneself on a realistic personal journey of reflection and learning from the process. IT leadership development programs would need stronger focus on people leadership development.

Selected job Assignments

  1. Involve future leaders in real business challenges involving strategy, values and execution. Being open about the challenges with high potential leaders develops trust and makes them feel involved. Involve them in solutions. They want to see how they can make a difference.
  2. Use “stretch” assignments and task forces to encourage, challenge and take risks. These new experiences will give a rich learning environment. Don’t just think about assignments within IT, consider cross-functional areas to broaden focus and develop relationships outside IT.
  3. Where right consider experiences beyond company boundaries and work with external stakeholders. Industry forums, task forces and secondments may be considered in the development plans.

Coaching and mentoring

  1. Actively involve senior leaders from IT and outside as role models, coaches and mentors to play a role in the development process. Just like elite athletes, high potential employees can benefit from coaching. A good rapport between the employee and the coach is necessary for effective coaching.
  2. Provide support during the inevitable ups and downs. Emerging leaders will experience more changes in roles and assignments than others. These will bring new challenges and at times create self-doubt. High performers have high standards for own performance. Support from managers and a mentor is critical to avoid burnout. Using skip level (next senior manager) reviews is a good way to keep an eye on the issues and barriers in employee development.

Other tips

  1. Assign clear accountability to a senior manager for development of the high potential emerging leaders. Align with corporate programs where possible but don’t delegate all responsibility to the HR department
  2. Focus on junior talent as well as the seniors. Sometimes the seniors get more attention as a part of succession planning and other processes. Create early identification and development opportunities for junior talent. Encourage their upward movement.
  3. Remuneration – show the these employees that they are valued. Give them both recognition and rewards. More frequent performance based pay rises are not unusual. Ensure retention by keeping the remuneration levels higher than others. In tough times, companies have to be more creative with the incentives.

For a detailed discussion and/or information on strategies to develop your high potential future IT Leaders, please contact the author.