In a competitive talent market, companies able to grow their technology leaders from within will have an edge. To grow your own leaders, CIOs need to get their teams excited about a culture of continuous learning, writes Tom Sweet, VP of IT Services at GM Financial.

At an industry event I attended last year, an audience member stood up and asked one of the presenters where he could go to find data scientists. The answer was, “You don’t find them, you grow them.” 

Exactly right, I thought. It is necessary to invest in re-skilling your team so that they can continue to help the company create value, year over year. But to accomplish this as an IT leader, you need to create a culture of continuous learning. 

Risks of the Status Quo 

If team member skills are not kept current, their value to the organization lessens, hurting both them and the company. The result could be that individuals find themselves in unexpected employment transition, or whole departments get outsourced or replaced with managed services. The challenge for the senior IT executive is to excite the larger team to embrace continuous learning. 

As development and adoption of new technology continues, traditional roles within IT will change substantially, whether your employees want them to or not. As a leader, you need to show your team what is possible, help them to re-imagine where they fit, and provide a clear path.

Just as IT leaders need to build relationships and inspire trust with their business partners, they must do the same deep within their teams for a learning transformation to occur. After trust, the next step is to motivate the team to want to learn. 

Get Your Team Excited About Learning

Work with your leadership team to create a learning plan that reinforces the technology solutions needed to support your business direction. Involve your individual contributors in the creation of the plan and assign execution of the plan to the front-line managers so that they have ownership. 

Set the team up for success by ensuring they have the tools they need. Many companies have several subscriptions in place for online learning, but they often forget to ensure their laptops are powerful enough to run the videos and  tools. 

Dedicated technical training delivered on-site can break a budget. As an alternative, consider engaging local college professors to create and deliver custom classes to your team. Training companies charge a premium, and consultants prefer a full week of work at a time, which can be too much for people to take in a once. Professors are more amenable to a flexible, gradual schedule that meets your team’s needs and your budget. 

Dedicate time, such as an hour per day, towards learning and improvement. A quote I often repeat to my team is, “Improving daily work is even more important than doing daily work”, which comes from The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Kevin Behr, George Spafford, and Gene Kim. 

Consider running hackathons or internal Innovation Days where small groups can present product ideas they have created or demonstrate new technologies to the wider team to help drum up excitement. This is a great opportunity to work with your vendors. Have them come onsite and help run and sponsor these events. You may elect to have the winning hackathon team present to your executive team. 

Recognize the team members’ successes, which can be as simple as personalized thank-you cards, weekly team emails, or a shout out and round of applause at a town hall event. Successes to be recognized may include simpler items such as completion of a training course, up to larger accomplishments such as certifications or promotions. You can also gamify the training plan by finding ways for the teams to compete against each other in a fun and positive way. Aside from bragging rights, the awards for winning teams can be inexpensive, such as a hosted lunch or a team-building event outside the office. 

In many digital transformation initiatives, there is an awareness that the company needs different skillsets. As you create roles for the team members to transition into once they learn and transform, offer additional transparency around core competencies, job grades and compensation. This provides encouragement, because the team will know what is in it for them as they invest their time in learning.

Learn and Lead by Example

As you lead your company or division from its current state toward a culture of continuous learning, it is important that your top leaders are actively engaged in learning themselves. For example, senior IT leaders could be required to obtain cloud certification as part of their annual goals. This may be a bit outside their comfort zone, but it reinforces the need for everyone to keep skills updated, and to continue learning. 

Practicing and studying that is required, often at night and on weekends, will help leaders empathize with the wider team. I have heard many comments in my own group along the lines of, “If the senior leaders can make time in their busy schedules to earn cloud certifications, then so can we.” Executive self-learning is not just about directing individuals to transform. It is an effort demonstrating that all are on the same journey. 

As with other initiatives in your organization, creating this culture must be deliberate and must enjoy the support of executive leadership. Learning is an investment with great returns, and it benefits both the business and its employees.

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