Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: CIOs are hard to find, so mentor promising candidates

April 6, 2013

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of a chief information officer in even moderate-size enterprises. A reader responded with a good question: How do you deal with resentment when you bring in a CIO from outside?

It’s a common problem every growing company faces. Small companies have especially difficult times with this, I think, because they’re like small towns. Bring in a sheriff from outside, and people can get sullen about it, making the sheriff’s job doubly hard.

You can, of course, promote from within, but the truth is, most IT hires aren’t going to make good CIOs. A CIO has to blend business and technical skills in ways that aren’t taught to technicians. The CIO has to understand how costs affect the balance sheet, how decisions today affect flexibility tomorrow, and how to both create and adhere to a budget. It’s a hybrid job.

Hiring from the outside is tricky, and it’s often just as hard to find a good outside CIO candidate as it is to find an internal one. Then the new CIO has to demonstrate management skills quickly, as well as technical chops.

There is no easy answer, but I like one solution more than the others: mentoring.

I’m a big fan of mentoring. Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great,” talks about the organization as a bus. You have to get the right people on the bus, then get the right people in the right seats.

I couple that with Ted Williams’ philosophy of hitting in baseball. Among many other points in his book “The Science of Hitting,” Williams—the only player in baseball history to hit more than .400 in a season—says he didn’t swing at a pitch he didn’t like. He would wait for his pitch, knowing that it had to come.

I’ve adopted that philosophy many times in my life, and not regretted it often. Homes, cars, investments, jobs, wife—all were decided only when it was “my pitch.” I could afford to wait rather than rush. Business guru Harvey Mackay made much the same point when he wrote, in “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” that you should be prepared to “smile and say ‘no’ until your tongue bleeds.”

When I’ve rushed, I’ve usually paid outsized prices for it.

Putting these ideas together into a management philosophy tells me that hurrying to hire people who have skills only for today is not a good bet. Interview until you find that CIO in the rough, the IT person with potential to be much more.

Take the time. Then mentor the living heck out of them. Make it obvious what you’re looking for. State it upfront. Tell each candidate that you’re hiring specifically for people who can take on increased responsibilities as the years go by, and not just be a proficient drone. Then set aside time in your own schedule, and the schedules of other managers and team leaders, just for mentoring.

Mentoring is much more than the occasional visit to the cubicle. It’s an organized, systematic way of moving business knowledge from those who know to those who need to know. Lay out an education plan that includes basic business concepts: accounting, selling, marketing, budgeting and decision-making.

Nothing on the level of an MBA program, just the basics.

Arrange time to work with the protege one-on-one. It will become apparent quickly whether the person wants to absorb the information. If not, no harm done and you have a smart IT worker who might morph into something you can’t anticipate. If he or she shows promise and interest, keep going.

There are many ways to work with a protege, depending on time and individual preference. Some need constant encouragement and personal attention, while others will thrive on homework. Some are content reading books and asking questions of you, while others will need detailed explanations from a real, live person. Learning styles vary.

The key is to find employees who want to keep going, to learn and grow. That’s where your best CIO will come from.

In today’s business world, everybody has the same equipment. The difference is in the talent pool. Are your people better than your competitors’ people? Smart, versatile people are restless and possibly more difficult to manage, but they’re definitely worth it.

There is far too little mentoring in business today. Talent is not being properly nurtured, and hiring is for skills, not potential. Good people are rare, but they confer competitive advantage. They belong on your bus. Almost any seat will do until the two of you find the best seat for them.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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