Every IT organisation has hidden experts. These individuals, possessing extraordinary talents, help their teams reach new levels of innovation, planning, productivity, and efficiency. Discovering these unique individuals, and then elevating them to positions where they can achieve maximum effectiveness, is a skill that every CIO should learn.
Spotting promising talent requires keeping a close pulse on both the enterprise and its people, says Carter Busse, CIO at business automation technology provider Workato. “Especially in a hybrid work environment, it’s more important than ever to consciously invest time in familiarising ourselves with each and every team member — you never know who will rise to the occasion.”
As you survey your organisation’s ranks, both within and outside IT, the following tips will help you identify individuals with the most promise to impact IT’s remit regardless of their current position, experience, and IT skill set.
1. Look for agility in seeking out new challenges
Diane Schwarz, vice president and CIO at building services equipment manufacturer Johnson Controls, says she looks for leaders with an agile learner’s mindset. “These are individuals who aren’t afraid to tackle new challenges on their own and who seek out a variety of roles or functions in which they challenge themselves,” she says.
Agility is embedded in a person’s DNA and doesn’t change, Schwarz claims. “It’s a critical characteristic because the technology we were taught in school or in a course is likely going to be retired and replaced in the very foreseeable future,” she observes. Schwarz points to generative AI as a technology that’s suddenly leaped into the IT spotlight. “That isn’t something even covered in any coursework because it’s so new,” Schwarz explains.
Schwarz says she prizes agile team members who understand business concepts and outcomes, and who have the ability to tell a story that translates technical thoughts into business outcomes.
2. Seek out systems-thinkers capable of resolving complexity
Highly talented IT pros never shirk from challenges. These individuals excel at resolving ambiguity when facing complex problems, says Ben Peavy, Accenture Federal Services’ CIO. He adds that such pros also usually have solid business knowledge, are technically-savvy, and are eager to learn new tasks when given the opportunity. Look for leaders who have created systems within their business units to address some of their IT needs, Peavy advises. Perhaps most important, when given the opportunity, they’re continuous learners.
Talented team members should be rewarded in ways that are meaningful to them, Peavy suggests. “To do this, you or their direct managers need to know what drives employees at an individual level and know what most motivates them,” he explains. “All employees like to be paid more money, but some employees greatly value being recognised in a public meeting, while others prefer direct recognition from their supervisor or from the CIO on occasion,” Peavy adds.
3. Train and take note of curiosity in the face of change
Technology is always changing, and it’s important to change and pivot with emerging trends. “The most promising tech talent doesn’t get stuck in one way of doing something,” says Gill Haus, CIO at Chase. “Fintech technologists are at the forefront of the digital banking evolution, so it’s vital to remain adaptable to business needs.”
Haus says he keeps an eye peeled for team members who show promising signs of curiosity and a willingness to learn. “At Chase, we have a culture of continuous learning to help our talent develop the skills needed now and in the future,” he says. Haus believes that it’s okay for team members to sometimes feel uncomfortable, uncertain, or even scared. “That means you’re learning!” he states.
Haus advises IT leaders to encourage team members to learn, absorb, and collaborate. “We make time for people to upskill and reskill,” he says. “You don’t necessarily need a four-year computer science degree, but you do need to be curious and willing to learn.”
4. Spread a wide net to identify passion and a bias for action
Irvin Bishop, Jr., CIO at engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch, looks for team members with a burning desire to learn and a bias for action. He says that such individuals “look for ways to deliver business value and are generally the top performers, or they will be one day.”
The biggest mistake, Bishop says, is looking for talent in the same places. “Often, you will find talent where you least expect it.” He notes that some of his organisation’s best developers came from finance-related positions, due to their close attention to detail.
When searching for top talent it’s important to spread a wide net and share your team’s brand internally throughout the enterprise, Bishop says. “This will help others see the opportunities your team can offer to help them learn and grow.”
5. Scout for leadership potential outside the usual venues
CIOs who step away from their offices and regularly interact with IT team members tend to be best positioned to discover hidden talent, says Santhosh Keshavan, CIO at finance, investment, and insurance company Voya Financial. He recommends attending skip-level team or project meetings, participating in diversity events, and hosting regular informal chats, all in an effort to identify team members who show strong leadership potential, typically in the form of problem-solving capabilities and stepping forward with new ideas.
“In a hybrid work environment, leaders must be even more intentional to ensure they’re connecting and engaging at various levels in the organisation,” Keshavan says.
Keshavan believes that an enterprise-wide talent mobility strategy is essential to enhance staff development and engagement, advance overall organisational health, and build talent bench-strength. “It should be a top priority for C-suite level executives and a key objective for leaders across the enterprise,” he notes.
Scouting for promising internal talent is an acquired skill that demands a thoughtful approach in order to avoid unintended consequences, Keshavan says. “CIOs cannot put individual interests above the needs of the overall organisation,” he warns. “Leaders must balance employee interest with appropriate timing and business and technology needs to ensure they do not create a talent gap.”
6. Rotate responsibilities to unlock potential outside comfort zones
CIOs should look for team members who aren’t afraid to learn new skills and who are motivated to step into roles that might initially be outside of their comfort zone, says Sal DiFranco, managing partner of global advanced technology at DHR Global, a leadership and executive advisory firm.
It’s important for individuals to show their inclination to learn and take on new challenges, DiFranco says. “They should have the willingness to take on rotational assignments and be open to trying new things that might be outside of their typical day-to-day responsibilities.” He notes that many tech pros only feel comfortable operating within specific areas, whether it’s infrastructure, application development, security, or any other IT discipline. DiFranco also suggests looking for team members with the ability to translate their technical knowledge and analyses into forms enterprise leaders can understand and use.
DiFranco believes that the biggest mistake CIOs make when scouting for internal talent is promoting individuals based on their length of employment instead of prioritising skills and performance. “Another common mistake is not considering external talent before making an internal hire, which can lead to overlooking a potentially better qualified candidate.”
7. Identify innovative thinkers before considering skills
Look for individuals who propose innovative approaches to difficult problems. “These are the people who are constantly generating new ideas, proposing projects, and devising creative solutions to existing issues,” says Alan Heppenstall, CTO of digital credentialing platform provider Accredible. “Identifying these employees, and helping them understand their growth tracks, will help the organisation promote the right talent,” he explains.
Heppenstall recommends looking for candidates who have a strong track record of innovation, particularly individuals who have worked on boundary-expanding projects and who aren’t afraid to take a calculated risk. “The individuals who strive for innovation, while critically considering any possible obstacles, are the ones who are going to make the biggest impact on your organisation,” he observes.
Once promising innovators have been identified, the next step should be creating a system to thoroughly analyze their skills, such as coding ability, database management, cybersecurity awareness, and knowledge of emerging technologies, Heppenstall says. “Having a database of employees’ credentials and professional skills will significantly streamline the process, since those credentials signify and prove each person’s competence in their areas of expertise.”
“Failing to familiarise ourselves with all team members can lead to overlooking incredible talent,” counsels Workato’s Busse. “While there’s certainly a time investment, being in tune with each and every team member’s strengths and challenges ensures we staff our internal structure for success.”