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01:57 PM
Larry Tieman
Larry Tieman

How To Cultivate High-Potential IT Leaders

Seeking a new IT job opportunity or trying to retain your organization's best talent? Consider this advice from a 40-year industry veteran.

A common experience is not having the boss you thought you were going to have during the interview process. When I was tapped to join FedEx in 2000, I talked with a lot of people about the CIO, Dennis Jones, who was recruiting me. I had a pretty good idea of what it was like to work for Dennis and, in private, I challenged him about the negative things I had heard. He let me have frank discussions with some of his direct reports and even attend a staff meeting as an unnamed observer. I was confident I could work for Dennis.

A few weeks after I joined FedEx, he announced his retirement. (I was lucky that Rob Carter succeeded him.) My point is that as hard as I tried, I was never able to get an accurate assessment of the man or woman I would be working for prior to getting on the job.

Compensation. Never, ever make compensation the top reason for taking a new job.

I almost fell into this trap once. I was in an incubator company within GE Capital when I was approached by another company wanting to do something similar. The pay topped what I was making at GE by more than $100,000. At the last minute, I decided to stay with GE--and found out a year later that the startup quickly failed and didn't pay most of the people there.

Some IT Organizations Are Dying

There's an old saying in business that if you aren't growing, you're dying. I think a lot of IT organizations are dying and don't know it. The prolonged hiring freeze and the permanent reduction of headcount budget as staff retire or leave mean a higher percentage of the IT staff are working on legacy systems and fewer are available for new, growth-oriented projects.

The prolonged hiring freeze also means new skills aren't coming into the organization just as there's an explosion in new ways to reach customers. Social media, mobility, software as a service, and BYOD (bring your own device) are among the pressures that will further stress many IT organizations. Already I see articles saying that marketing departments should take over mobile application development and that organizations should contract software services with the help of the CFO.

Each IT organization needs to determine whether it can meet new business needs with its existing staff and any forecast budget growth (headcount and/or contractor). If not, it may need to team with its HR department to develop a staff skills retrain and refresh plan. Replacing employees with out-dated skills is very complicated, especially when the new skilled workers are younger. An ossified IT organization is hard to modernize.

There's plenty of blame to go around on this topic. Has the company provided access to adequate training? And have employees taken advantage of it? But my experience is that the most trainable, flexible, and highest-performing individuals are the ones who leave when they see there are no promotional opportunities.

Meantime, rapid changes in the way companies want to deliver products and services are changing the expectations of the IT organization. CIOs can't meet those challenges with an organization stuck at 2005 headcount levels and, most desperately, pre-2005 skills.

No longer do I view the departure of a high-potential director or VP as a positive reflection on the organization. I now view it as another lost opportunity.

Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at

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User Rank: Apprentice
11/9/2011 | 4:08:10 PM
re: How To Cultivate High-Potential IT Leaders
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. In 1992 I went to a big, offsite meeting in Orlando called by the CEO. The topic was how to get Marketing and IT to work together. I have saved the souvenir coffee table coasters from the event and used them in innumerable Marketing/IT throwdowns since. You are so correct that neither group can be successful alone but the struggle to work together seems just as difficult as ever. And now with far more ways to reach customers and the need to keep those channels refreshed so much faster than before, I donG«÷t see the strain improving. I like your three starting points. They make great sense, have been tried, and deserve another try (or two or three). The company that has the best customer understanding and innovative product design in Marketing paired cooperatively with the best IT engineering will win in the market and meet the CMO and CIO goals of having a meaningful place at the CEO table.

User Rank: Apprentice
11/8/2011 | 6:10:46 PM
re: How To Cultivate High-Potential IT Leaders
Larry, thanks for this. I worked in IT for 15 years many years ago, then got into marketing research (mainly for Tech) and see the problem from the other side. Marketing is in a similar situation as IT in many organizations, both trying to prove their value and both wanting to sit at the CEO table but often being relegated to some other table. Marketing needs IT according to recent research and IT remarkably doesn't seem ready to help. IT relationship managers (according to our research) assigned to Marketing often go there and simply help queue up the projects instead of helping with new thinking and innovation. The gap between Marketing and IT is at least as important a gap as that between IT and Sales, yet little improvement seems to be happening. You may have identified a root cause in that IT is stifled, held back and not improving. Marketing, under the same pressures will simply try IT work-arounds and likely fail since they don't know systems, nor security, etc. The solution is for both to work together at the highest levels and decide how to build their combined TOTAL value up in the organization. Then go to the CFO/CEO with a joint plan to increase the value of the organization, show them how it will be done and get the funding. Not easy, of course, but it starts with 1. working together at the CIO/CMO level, 2. getting innovative help inside and/or outside to work with the cross-function team, 3. challenge them to act as professionals and work together to achieve the greater good. Watch what happens.
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