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CIOs: Solving your talent challenges by admitting these uncomfortable truths

For starters, break the cycle of scarce and expensive talent by looking in uncomfortable and unconventional places.
Ginny Holden
Contributing Writer

Picture this: Your CEO comes to you, the CIO, and enthusiastically shares their vision for a new initiative. It could be game-changing. You’re asked to begin immediately. 

Your mind starts doing mental gymnastics running through what it would require. You’re mentally scanning your org chart and resources, and it’s not looking good. You’re not sure what you’re going to do. 

But there’s one thing that Gartner VP Analyst Daniel Sanchez Reina bets you’re not going to say: “Will you tell your CEO: ‘Please wait for one year until I get the talent that I need and skills that I need?,’” he asked rhetorically during his recent keynote at the Gartner IT Symposium/Xpo in Orlando. 

“Well, try it, but please come back to me later because that will be a very interesting case study in anger,” he joked, drawing laughter from the CIOs and IT executives who attended the session. 

In other words, CIOs can’t let their talent and skills shortages stand in the way of meeting executive expectations. But given how pervasive IT talent challenges are, what are CIOs to do? 

It starts with facing some uncomfortable truths about how you may traditionally have thought about talent. For CIOs who are ambitious enough to set their sights even higher, it could even mean taking on recruitment, retention, and employee performance for their entire enterprise. 

Let’s begin with those. 

Uncomfortable truths for CIOs 

Breaking the cycle of scarce and expensive talent means accepting some “uncomfortable truths,” said Sanchez Reina, who took center stage to present Gartner’s CIO and Technology Executive Agenda for 2023. Among them:

  1. You will not lose influence and make yourself expendable by letting business technologists take on some of the work traditionally performed by IT.
  2. You need to start relying on unconventional talent sources. 

By calling out these truths, Sanchez Reina, an expert in CIO leadership, culture, and people, is giving CIOs permission to let go of any long-held beliefs about the importance of keeping others out of their IT castles.

In fact, CEOs and senior business executives want IT to share more technology work with other departments – Sanchez Reina said, citing 2022 Gartner CEO and Senior Business Executive Survey findings that revealed 67 percent of respondents want more technology work completed directly within business functions and less in IT. 

“Your CEO knows very well that you can’t cope with all the workload that digitalizaiton encomapasses alone,” he said. “That’s the reason they want more technology work to be done within business functions.”

Yet, CIOs are naturally protective of their domains, especially when it comes to data governance, privacy, and security. Sanchez Reina is not suggesting IT organizations give up those responsibilities. Rather, he encouraged CIOs to treat digital execution as a team sport. 

When CIOs empower what Sanchez Reina and Gartner call “business technologists” –  those who don’t have an IT background but have a willingness and capacity to participate in IT – they will be able to achieve their goals faster. Rather than hiring more talent, this approach involves tapping existing talent to help build technology-based solutions. 

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “You have to be afraid if you don’t do it.” 

Hiring unconventional talent 

With no end in sight in the competition for IT talent – Sanchez Reina noted that even conventional talent sources such as consulting companies and vendors are feeling the squeeze  – now is the time for CIOs to experiment with unconventional talent sources (e.g. high school and college students, gig workers, and startups) for lower level, everyday initiatives.  

“You will have to rely on untested talent,” he said, calling it another uncomfortable truth. “But you have implicit permission to do it because you will have to [say] something in the boardroom,” he said. “So take that risk – if at all a risk – and use these unconventional talent resources.”

[Discuss talent issues with other CIOs and technology executives as a member of the CIO Professional Network.]

Of course, exploring unconventional sources may not be as easy as looking for helpdesk assistance on TaskRabbit. If you’re serious about looking in non-traditional places, Sanchez Reina says, you may need to work with business and HR leaders to relax policies related to preferred providers or employment contracts. 

Now let’s look at ways CIOs can make an even bigger impact on their organizations’ talent challenges. 

CIOs can help solve company-wide talent challenges

CIOs are in a unique position to use IT’s superpowers to help their entire enterprise overcome key recruitment, retention, and work performance challenges, said Tina Nunno, a vice president and Gartner fellow in Gartner’s CEO and Digital Leaders Research Group. 

With the pandemic forcing many workers to adopt more technology, workers now have an increased appetite for digital technologies. CIOs can help their enterprises win the competition for talent by creating a powerful IT-enabled brand and (importantly) making sure that perception matches reality, Nunno said. 

“What your organization may not know is that you and IT are the epicenter of the talent solution,” Nunno said. “IT now matters more than ever in the recruitment, retention, and high performance of all enterprise employees, not just IT.”

CIOs can help make their organizations – not just their IT departments – the employer of choice by leading technology initiatives that fix problems such as “annoying or cumbersome application technologies or portals.” Painful experiences like these have led annoyed applicants to abandon an application process (29%), turn down a job offer (18%), or write a bad review about a company (13%), according to survey data Nunno cited. 

When it comes to retention, Nunno said workers satisfied with their enterprise IT applications are twice as inclined to stay at their organizations. 

On the performance front, she cited data showing workers who have all the tech they need are less fatigued, more likely to stay, and higher performing. 

CIOs up for the task can employ three force multipliers identified by Gartner:

  • Take the friction out of work by using technology to energize employees and eliminate work that is unnecessarily hard.
  • Invest aggressively in AI augmentation to help employees have more impact using AI insights. 
  • Experiment with highly-visible and highly-hyped technologies to capture the attention of candidates who want to stay ahead of the curve. 

“Employers who revolutionize the work and empower their workers with technology will become the employers of choice,” Nunno said. 

Improve retention with this simple question

Any leader who wants to improve retention can start by showing their employees they care, legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski aka Coach K, who was a guest speaker at the conference. One way to demonstrate that is by simply asking: “What do you think?” 

Not only does this question show that you care, he said, it also lets employees truly feel like they’re part of what they’re working on. 

“One of the biggest compliments you can give to another is to ask them what they think,” Coach K said, adding that “it’s a huge force multiplier” that sometimes results in leaders unearthing new information.  

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