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Grow your own CIO with in-house training

Beth Stackpole | Feb. 7, 2011
Last summer, about 30 hand-picked IT managers convened in an executive classroom for the third session of CIO University, a leadership development program for would-be CIOs. The agenda was chock-full of sessions covering best practices for stakeholder management along with role-playing exercises to explore the Thomas-Kilmann model of conflict resolution. Guest speakers included C-level executives as well as former attendees who had gone on to become CIOs. A post-session happy hour and dinner gave participants a chance to network, exchange insights and simply blow off steam.

Clearwire's CIO U classes are held for a full day once every quarter in rooms on loan from the University of Washington. Participants are given homework assignments in which they're asked to apply improvement initiatives in the workplace. While not every graduate is destined to hold the title of CIO, especially in a company like Clearwire with a relatively small IT staff, Hart says the experience attendees gain is invaluable to their careers and to their employers.

Hart initiated the program in 2006 when he was CIO at Level 3 Communications Inc. (LVLT), a $3.7 billion provider of telecommunications services with more than 1,000 IT staffers, and he took it with him when he joined Clearwire in 2009. (His CIO University is not to be confused with another program of the same name, through which the federal government in partnership with several universities offers graduate-level training in tech leadership.)

To date, Hart's CIO U has turned out more than 130 graduates at Clearwire and at Level 3 Communications. Though nobody has kept formal count, Hart says many graduates have gone on to become CIOs, with a good number planting the seeds for similar IT leadership programs at their new employers.

Hart and others who are engaged in the practice of "growing your own CIO" including tech execs at Direct Energy and Purdue Pharma LP contend that there are multiple benefits to conducting IT leadership training internally.

Despite the time and resources required to develop a program in-house, they say, internal training is still far more cost-effective than external programs, a factor that resonates at a time when corporate training budgets remain tight.

In addition, in developing an in-house curriculum, CIOs can tap human resources specialists, top executives and professionals from other areas of the business to tailor a course of study that matches the real-world problems plaguing individuals or the IT organization as a whole.

Internal programs help with recruitment and retention of high-performing IT personnel interested in career advancement, Hart and others say, but beyond that, they foster leadership development on an organizational level, a key benefit to the sponsoring company.

"You can send someone to California for a week and pay $10,000 for the individual experience, but the real value comes with having that experience collectively as a team. The team becomes better able to understand the context of working together and building relationships," says Hart. "It's about having people feel a real sense of investment in their career and in their future."

 

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