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CIO how-to: The art of developing direct reports

Most IT professionals want to develop new skills, do well and be rewarded with more pay and higher-level positions. Unfortunately, IT executives often don't do enough to help employees get there.

For your direct reports, career development can be accomplished with a three-part strategy. First off, each person...

needs to be ambitious and willing to do what's required. Then your organization needs formal processes to help those who want to take on new challenges. What typically derails organizations is a third requirement: A CIO needs to make career development of direct reports a high priority -- and be an active player in the process. Here are six things CIOs can do to make that happen:

Find the time

Time is scarce for IT executives, but they must share it with direct reports. No less than 12 hours per year per direct report is required. If you have six direct reports, that's nine of roughly 230 working days -- or 4% of your annual work calendar. Two of the 12 hours should be spent on each of these four critical tasks:

• Conduct an annual appraisal of current strengths and weaknesses and a list of the competencies your direct report needs to acquire to move to the next level.
• Have an in-depth career discussion. Find out what he/she wants. What will he/she sacrifice to get there? What is his/her own appraisal of his/her skills?
• Create a three- to five-year development plan and share it with the worker. Present the findings and recommendations to the organization. This is usually part of a succession-planning process.
• Arrange for specific developmental events for each worker.

The remaining four of the 12 hours should be devoted to quarterly sit-downs to monitor progress.

Make an appraisal

You can't help your direct reports succeed if you can't fairly and accurately appraise them. Start with the best possible picture of the person's strengths and weaknesses. Then identify which hard (technical) and soft (interpersonal, managerial) competencies are going to be necessary for advancement. Look at a success profile for the next probable job for each direct report. If there are no formal success profiles, ask huma resources for assistance -- or query someone currently in that next job.

Give high-quality feedback

Continuous feedback is essential. Here are some tips:

• Arrange for direct reports to get feedback from multiple sources, including you.
• Give them new tasks that are progressively more challenging.
• Ask their direct reports or peers for comments on what they should stop doing, start doing and keep doing. Arrange for them to get 360° feedback at least once every two years.
• Set up a buddy system so they can get continual feedback.
• Give them honest, accurate -- but balanced -- feedback. They need to know any weak spots as soon as possible.

Create a development plan that works

Put together a development plan that, if followed, will actually work. A good plan would be broken down this way: 70% dedicated to job and task content; 20% naming people to seek out as mentors, shadow and work with; and 10% suggesting courses and readings.

The key is to give your reports challenging tasks and assignments they haven't done before -- even if it makes them uncomfortable. Worthwhile development is not about stress reduction: either they have the skills or they don't -- and they may fail -- but they must make the attempt. Encourage them to seek out role models or work with a developmental partner.


Delegate three tasks that are currently yours but are no longer ones that qualify as developmental tasks for you -- and delegate them to direct reports who would benefit from them. Trade tasks and assignments between two direct reports; have them do each other's work. Think of varied assignments that are rewarding but require learning something new.

Sell career development

Part of developing the talent of your direct reports is assuring them that these tough, new assignments are good for them. You must convince even the most ambitious people to get out of their comfort zone and accept some jobs they may not initially see as part of their overall career plans.

Keep a running dialogue with your reports about what they are learning. Volunteer them for cross-boundary task forces and provide them with opportunities to meet people from other areas. Open up the world for them.

Even well-intentioned CIOs can falter if they step on one of these common land mines:

  • Concentrating on the development of a few direct reports at the expense of the team.
  • Creating unfair workloads as challenging assignments are parceled out.
  • Being overly optimistic about how far direct reports can grow.

David Foote is president and chief research officer of Foote Partners LLC, a New Canaan, Conn.-based management consultancy and IT workforce research firm specializing in IT compensation, outsourcing and organizational performance. Contact him at [email protected].

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