IT Talent: 5 key practices for the decade ahead

CIOs share what it takes to hire and build talent that can tackle the technical challenges of today and adapt for the needs of tomorrow. Learn from their strategies
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Want a peek into the IT talent realities facing CIOs today? Imagine you are tasked with hiring for a new position in your organization. Going into the interview, you know only two things for certain: The person hired will be critical to the growth and success of the entire business, and their day-to-day role will likely look completely different within six months to a year after they start.

Today, certain technical capabilities are in high demand, as is knowledge around how to use emerging technologies for competitive advantage. But, as digital transformation reshapes businesses, the talent needed for the next decade must continuously learn new skills, move to new roles as needed, and collaborate with peers across the business.

This is true for IT roles at all levels, notes Martha Heller, CEO, Heller Search Associates, an IT leadership executive recruiting firm. “Companies hiring senior level IT executives understand that leadership skills are far more important than technical depth,” says Heller. “When we do a CIO search, we look for candidates who have skills in team development, strategic thinking, business partnership, and transformational leadership. Our clients know that it is the soft skills, not technical depth, that will make them successful.”

That's true for many of the supporting roles reporting up to the CIO, as well. But hiring someone with that kind of broad skill set requires a new talent strategy. A new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, based on interviews with top CIOs and talent experts, details the principles and best practices of talent management that leaders are employing now in order to compete in a future that is largely unknown.

In 2020 and beyond, adaptability will be king, learning cultures will thrive, and IT will play a key role in educating the entire business, the report finds.

In 2020 and beyond, adaptability will be king, learning cultures will thrive, and IT will play a key role in educating the entire business, the report finds. And as for those “unicorn” hires who bring top tech skills and critical soft skills? Businesses will pull out all the stops to scoop them up and keep them happy.

Here are five talent best practices, identified in the report, that IT leaders should consider adopting or strengthening this year:

1. Further align talent strategy with the needs of the business

“The talent strategy CIOs adopt depends on many factors, including the organization’s business model and the philosophy of its leaders,” the report states. “While one company relies on outside talent for the bulk of its IT work, another doubles down on keeping and cultivating talent in-house. One thing most leaders agree on, however, is the need for flexibility.”

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” says Manjit Singh, CIO at Toyota Motors North America, who is quoted in the report, “and so you have to be flexible, you have to be able to adapt to those changing requirements. And I think those who are less flexible will find themselves to be much more challenged in the future as the pace of change only gets faster.”

2. Hire people who can learn and adapt

CIOs are offering IT leadership roles to leaders in marketing, supply chain management, and finance.

“IT talent must be more capable and adaptable than ever before. Traditional training and talent development approaches won’t be enough, because 2020 and the decade that follows will demand flexibility and adaptability on a scale not seen in most CIOs’ lifetime,” the report notes.

Since these traits are harder to assess in job applicants, CIOs are looking for stand-out employees throughout their companies, says Heller.

“At the middle management levels, we are starting to see CIOs look to the business functions within their own companies for talent. With technology leadership requiring business acumen as much as technical depth, CIOs are finding that a rich talent pool exists right under their roofs, and are offering IT leadership roles to leaders in marketing, supply chain management, and finance, for example.”

3. Build and promote a compelling IT brand

Brand building accomplishes two goals for IT leaders, the report notes: “Internally, it’s a tool to build or enhance the credibility of IT within the business or to redefine its role as the company transforms. Outside the organization, promoting a compelling IT brand attracts top talent and adds to the overall corporate reputation.”

The reputation those brands want to project? That they are the place to be for IT professionals to do interesting, leading-edge work.

4. Focus training on non-technical abilities

“CIOs have long understood the importance of soft skills – things like the ability to communicate, collaborate, and influence. But until recently, the need for such skills was pressing only for a small subset of the IT organization. It started at the top, with CIOs themselves, then moved to the CIO’s senior leadership team and into certain roles, such as business relationship managers. Today, it’s a must-have throughout IT,” says the report.

Claus Jensen, chief digital officer and head of technology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center calls these “durable” skills. “At his previous company, Jensen devoted 100 percent of his training budget – and some of his consulting budget as well – to helping his team develop them,” the report states.

5. Embrace IT’s role in training the business

CIOs quoted in the report say they are adopting new approaches to promote continual learning within their organizations: Examples include peer learning, coaching, and applied learning. CIOs are also taking it a step further by increasing tech literacy throughout their companies.

For instance, Justin Kershaw, global CIO at Cargill, hosts “tech days” to introduce people to digital topics such as new business models, full technology stacks, data platforms, and the workings of the cloud, and anyone can sign up, notes the report.

“There are a lot of non-technology people going because they want to learn it, and they’re going to pull it into their business, we hope,” Kershaw said in the report.

Download the full report: “IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era,” to learn more about how CIOs are putting these new best practices into action. 

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.  

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