Grow your own CIO: Building leadership and succession plans

Steve Zerby prides himself on the fact that he not only mentors midlevel IT managers but spends time with all 211 people in the Owens Corning IT organization.

Steve Zerby, CIO, Owens Corning

Owens Corning

“I could probably tell you the name of their significant other,’’ says Zerby, who will retire as CIO of the company, which makes insulation, roofing, and fiberglass composite materials, in March 2023. “A good day for me is when I spend 51% of my time in either talent discussions or interactions with members of our team, from the lowest level to the executive level. That’s just the way we operate.”

While Zerby has groomed Owens Corning’s Vice President of IT Annie Baymiller as his successor, he has also forged ties with external CIOs so she can gain insight into what the top IT position looks like in other companies. In addition to Zerby, Baymiller has been mentored by Bill Braun, CIO of Chevron, and Mindy Simon, the former CIO of Conagra Brands.

“They’ve been key mentors for [Baymiller] for several years,’’ Zerby says. “I did that because I think highly of both, and it gives Annie good perspective on what other IT organizations look like — good, bad, or indifferent.”

Like Owens Corning, organizations are frequently turning inward to grow their own future CIOs beyond formal training programs, through a combination of mentoring, shadowing, coaching, and assigning additional responsibilities.

“There’s a real concerted effort to develop and train that middle [IT] organization and really strengthen it,’’ says Dan Roberts, CEO and president of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, which trains IT leaders. “Oftentimes, we call it the ‘frozen middle,’ because the mid-tier is what really sustains our change initiatives, and if they’re not strong and pushing, they’re not going to survive.”

“Every good CIO is building those succession plans and education programs to get their team ready,’’ agrees Len Peters, faculty director for the online CIO senior executive program at New York University and chairperson of The CIO Institute.

But there is also a misnomer about what the CIO role is, and that can affect how people are trained, he adds. People “think it’s the tech person or the person who runs IT,’’ Peters says. “The CIO is a business leader who happens to know a lot about technology.”

The case for developing a deep leadership bench

To ensure the long-term health of the company, tech chiefs must focus on building up that middle tier of IT leaders, a reality many CIOs are only now recognizing the need to address.

“There are not enough people out there — you have to develop your own people,’’ says Roberts, who estimates that only 10% to 20% of companies are “being intentional about doing formal development programs.’’

Mike Eichenwald, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry Consulting, agrees that it’s important to elevate individuals from vertical leadership roles within the pillars of infrastructure, engineering, product, and security to enterprise leadership roles. With technology converging in all aspects of the business, doing so will help organizations leverage the diversity of experience those midlevel managers have under their belts, and their learning curve and degree of risk will be minimized, Eichenwald says.

“Unfortunately, organizations miss an opportunity to cultivate that talent internally and often find themselves needing to reach out to the [external] market to bring it in,’’ he adds.

But developing future IT leaders requires more than it has in the past, given the speed and complexity of change in today’s uncertain and volatile business landscape, Roberts says. Internal training programs “are not getting the job done for IT leaders,’’ he claims, because they tend to be more generic, “and let’s face it, IT has a unique set of challenges and responsibilities.”

While anyone can initiate change, Roberts says, leading and sustaining it is harder to accomplish. “If they don’t have that change muscle, initiatives are more complicated.”

Here is a look at how CIOs are growing midlevel IT leaders for the CIO role and IT leaders who are benefitting from their experience.

Increase responsibilities and find opportunities outside of IT

Tim April believes wholeheartedly in growing his internal people to become CIOs to increase stickiness and retention. April, executive vice president and CIO of Vail Resorts, says the CIO’s biggest job is talent selection and development.

Tim April, EVP and CIO, Vail Resorts

Vail Resorts

“My philosophy my whole career is that everybody’s job should be to work themselves out of a job,’’ he says. As CIO, April is “trying to develop an organization and team that doesn’t need me,’’ he says. “It’s actually the most healthy thing for the organization” to build an IT team that is sustainable, self-contained, and self-managed.

That way, you have a strong succession pipeline. “A strong succession plan means you don’t want to rely on one successor and you should always be investing in multiple people,’’ he says.

CIO preparation at Vail Resorts focuses on the vice presidents who have demonstrated competence at that level and have a stated ambition to become a CIO. April increases their responsibilities so they gain an understanding of how to run the whole IT department.

“Pushing them outside their comfort zones and expanding their scope forces them to think differently about the leadership role they play,’’ he explains.

For example, he has one vice president who ran all software applications for the mountain division, and over time, April has added the software portfolios of other lines of business to that vice president’s responsibilities.

This gives them more stakeholders to engage with and manage. It also forces them to change how they prioritize their time and where to focus their energies — one of the hardest things for everyone to do at every level, according to April. People get used to where they feel they can add value and where they are productive, so this trains them to do that at different levels of leadership, he says.

“When you continue to progress and you have exponential growth in your scope of responsibility, you don’t have the capacity to do the things you used to do when you had less scope, so it forces a behavioral change,’’ he says. It also changes the way IT leaders lead because they are not as involved in the day-to-day details as they assess risk and talent at a different level, April says.

“That helps start prepping them for the next step,’’ he says. “That’s a very consistent behavioral process that’s very much about preparing people [to become] the CIO.”

Of course, only one vice president can become the eventual CIO. So even though a few people are being groomed for the role, they have the opportunity to run an operation outside of IT to gain experience that could still be beneficial for a future CIO position. That’s the case for one of the Vail Resort’s vice presidents whose whole career has been in IT. She has taken an operational leadership role running all guest services at Vail Resorts but still reports to April.

“She may still want to be CIO but will do this for a few years and get an entirely different set of professional experiences overseeing thousands of employees out at the resorts,” April says. “I’m still coaching and mentoring her on potential opportunities to be CIO” while she gains exposure to what it is like to run a large operation.

“The key is you’re not limiting your contributions” based on your knowledge of technology, he adds.

Right now, April has three potential successors, two in IT and the vice president who is running guest services. “I’m not moving anywhere,’’ he notes, “but that should be my mindset every day — I want succession candidates, and my job is to get them ready.”

He speaks from experience. Before April became CIO, “I was No. 2 to our prior CIO for about 10 years,’’ having been identified as a potential successor. April also stepped outside of IT “and ran large programs and didn’t limit my scope. If you get bored, it’s your own fault,’’ he says. “There are plenty of ways to step up and play leadership roles and anything you do outside IT will make you a better CIO.”

April also recognizes that some of the vice presidents may find CIO opportunities outside of the company and says if he’s not ready to step down, they should “go for it” but with a caveat. “I do tell them their responsibility is to have a strong team underneath them and have clearly defined successors” so if they leave the company, there is a seamless transition.

“Part of your legacy is how well-prepared your team is,’’ he says, “and what level of succession planning you have in place to ensure someone could step into your role.”

Prepare to be uncomfortable

Having had a strong mentor early in his career, Michael Mahar, vice president of technology at Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, also knows the value of gaining experience beyond the tech realm, saying he was given autonomy and the opportunity “to experiment, learn, and fail fast.” That type of culture has resonated with Mahar throughout his career.

Michael Mahar, vice president of technology, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts

“Creating a culture to learn and grow where failure is not critical and is looked at as a growth opportunity,’’ creates a mindset that makes you more growth-oriented, Mahar says. “I looked for new things to take on because I wasn’t afraid to fail and knew I had support from the leadership team if I did make a mistake.”

Now, Mahar, who has held at least 15 different positions at Wyndham, is paying it forward and carving out time to mentor IT managers at the hotel chain.

“I’ve described myself to people as a people leader who has a high acumen for technology,’’ he says. “The way we accomplish our goals for the business is to help people grow.”

People in general want to contribute and do well, Mahar says. “As a leader, the more that I can help them be successful, the more successful we can be as an organization. That has been proven time and again.”

Mahar does a combination of mentoring, shadowing, coaching, and providing formal training, tailored to individual needs.

For example, he has one direct report with whom he is “very direct” in providing feedback and has also given a lot of autonomy. Another direct report is very risk-averse and wants to talk things through. “With that individual, I take a much more hands-on approach where I mentor and listen and ask questions,” he says.

Mahar says he is “on a CIO track” and continues to look at opportunities to take on new things as well as doing some public speaking and networking.

Wyndham CIO Scott Strickland has mentored Mahar by helping him build relationships throughout the company and promoting a philosophy called “yes, if,” meaning “yes, we can do that if we have these resources,’’ Mahar says. “It’s changed the way we innovate and work with the business.”

As Mahar forges ahead, he says he has learned two valuable lessons: be willing to take on something new and be prepared to be uncomfortable — and encourage your team to be uncomfortable, too. “A lot of leaders steer away from that,’’ he says. “They want to provide all the answers instead of allowing their teams to grow and learn on their own and take on mentor roles.”

Learn to become a great people leader

As the incoming CIO of Owens Corning, Baymiller credits Zerby’s commitment to helping her and other IT leaders on the “journey of development.”

Annie Baymiller, vice president of IT, Owens Corning

Owens Corning

She calls Zerby “a special type of leader’” who takes great interest in making sure people have challenging work. “And he builds roles around people,’’ she says. “Something we’ve adopted in our IT organization is balancing the things you’re great at with things you need to be learning.”

Zerby’s decision to find external mentors to also work with her was transformative, Baymiller says. It helped her build trusting relationships to the point where it was easy to pick up the phone to bounce ideas off them.

Baymiller says Zerby also helped to put together a capability map on skills she and the other CIO contenders are expected to have expertise in. That led her to “go build my development plan and do a self-assessment” of where she had natural strengths and where she had to grow her skills.

A great CIO starts by being a great people leader, Baymiller says. Getting to lead diverse teams in Europe and in North America helped her tremendously. “It made me a better people leader,’’ she says.

Baymiller has also learned that to be a successful CIO requires the recognition that you need a leadership team with the right depth, “so I’m making the right decisions from a risk mitigation strategy.”

From Zerby, she has also learned to be open to feedback. Baymiller says she hopes to continue Zerby’s legacy of building a high-performance leadership team. “I mentor people across the company, and it’s super rewarding to learn about different functions and understand what people are trying to learn. I’m a huge believer in the value of teams.”

Her goal as CIO is for her people to “wake up every day feeling supported and … if I continue to grow that leadership team the way Steve has, we have a couple of fun years ahead of us,” she says.

Invest in people and give your time

Claus T. Jensen, chief innovation officer, Teladoc Health

Teladoc Health

For Zerby, one of the most important things a CIO can do is to invest in their people. “If you’re really invested in them and they win, you feel great, and when they have bad days, you feel rotten,’’ he says. These CIOs are constantly thinking about the development and advancement of their staff.

For CIOs who want to grow their own successors, “the most pertinent question is probably how much of yourself are you willing to give in the grooming of the next generation,’’ adds Claus T. Jensen, chief innovation officer of Teladoc Health, who mentors midlevel IT managers. “It’s not usually the first question people ask — and it’s the one they should ask. Giving of yourself is not just your time but being vulnerable to share the good and bad moments in your career as learning opportunities.”

It comes down to how you measure your own success as a CIO, he says. “If your metric for success doesn’t include a better team, you have to think twice about whether you’re going to be the one pushing people toward being the next C-level leader.”

IT Leadership, IT Training