Reckoning with the talent gap - five recruitment steps CIOs are taking

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed December 3, 2015
CIOs are in a pivotal time where change is imperative and resources are tight. Their biggest obstacle? Talent and recruitment. Here's my review of what they're doing about it.

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Hand-waving about so-called "talent gaps" evokes my skepticism. But when it comes to CIOs, inability to recruit talent causes hairlines to recede and brows to furrow. I decided to spare you from another one of my polemics about how the talent gap is (mostly) overhyped bullpucky (short version: the gap may be real, but only because companies have lost touch with how to upskill the capable and nurture their own "farm teams").

Instead, I'll share tactics CIOs are using to improve their in-house talent. Make no mistake, getting the talent mix right is mission critical: talent looms as the major impediment to the projects that will save the CIO's political bacon, from analytics to "digital" to next-gen cyber security.

The CIO's recruitment problem - by the numbers

The latest stats back that up. During a recent Gartner webinar, 2016 CIO Agenda: Building the Digital Platform, Lee Weldon presented CIO survey results from almost 3,000 CIOs, hailing from 84 countries. When asked about their biggest barrier to achieving their objectives as a CIO, skills was number one, and by a wide margin:

  • Skills - 22 percent
  • Money - 15 percent
  • Culture - 12 percent
  • Alignment - 11 percent
  • Technology - 9 percent
  • Change - 8 percent
  • Relationships - 8 percent

So what type of talent are CIOs lacking? As per the Gartner survey:

1. Information/Analytics - 40%
2. Business Knowledge/Acumen - 18%
3. Security & Risk - 17%
4. Digital - 15%
5. Project Management - 13%
6. Software Development - 13%
7. Architecture - 12%
8. Leadership - 9%
9. Attract/Retain - 8%
10.Technical Skills - 8%

But don't take Gartner's word for it. In May of 2015, issued a PDF compilation called the CIO's Guide to Recruiting Talent. In the intro, they refer to their own 2015 State of the CIO survey, which found that 56 percent of the 558 CIOs survey "said that they expect to experience IT skills shortages in the next 12 months."'s most sought-after skills were similar:

Not surprisingly, the search for the elusive “data scientist” (some say it’s akin to finding a unicorn) tops the list. Security professionals are also in demand, and they command high salaries, especially after a slew of data breaches raised alarms at the CEO and board levels. And good luck finding an experienced mobile app developer these days.

Five CIO tactics to reduce the talent gap

With the problem established, here are tactics CIOs are using to lessen the talent gap:

1. Social and reputation tools are better for vetting candidates than for sourcing them. A recent article reinforced the value of social networks like LinkedIn, less for finding candidates and more for gut-checking them. One example? CIO of Alaska Airlines Veresh Cita gets "known entities" in the IT field by obtaining referral recommendations with vendors, partners, and employees. Sita then uses LinkedIn to validate a candidate's skills.

VMware CIO Bask Iyer does the same. He'll cross-check a candidate with other CIOs and ask mutual LinkedIn connections for feedback. As Iyer said to "The world is so connected these days. You used to be able to hide, but two clicks into LinkedIn and you're going to find somebody that knows [the candidate]."

2. Use creative interview structures that mitigate the risk of bad hires. In the talent field, we talk a lot about retention risk and the expensive cost of employee turnover. But we don't talk enough about bad hires. Traditional interviews increase the risk of bad hires by giving the edge to "professional interviewers" who don't end up being good field performers. CIOs are wising up to this, and adding creative interview twists.

VMware's Iyer uses "situational" interviews, asking prospects to address scenarios such as how they handled working on a difficult team, and how they overcame delivery obstacles. As per, Sita from Alaska Airlines puts interviewees in a hands-on situation:

Sita engages groups of prospects in an exercise that requires them to solve a problem together and present their findings, with the overarching goal intended to demonstrate their ability to work with others.

3. Write job descriptions that don't suck. Too often, CIOs leave it to HR to write job descriptions for their key hires. CIOs should team with HR but write their own job descriptions, toning down the absurd requirements that rule out candidates they might want to talk to later. Example: Don't insist on Oracle database version unless it's a deal breaker. Far better to ask for five years of Oracle DBA experience, or five years of NoSQL database experience, with Oracle preferred. Then: narrow the job description by emphasizing non-technical factors that will help with cultural fit, such as preferred industry experience.

Job descriptions should be lively, and offer a glimpse of an appealing culture rather than a laundry list of nitpicking requirements. In the guide to recruiting for talent, two CIOs who write their own job descriptions, Steve Heilenman, at Computer Aid, and Larry Bilker at Continuity Logic, weigh in. Both make the point that a hands-on role in writing job descriptions clarifies requirements but also gives a feel for the position's appeal. Heilenman: “It is just as important for the candidate to feel comfortable with the role as it is for us to feel good about the candidate."

4. Instead of bidding wars and financial perks, create a compelling IT vision. Yes, tech talent cares about compensation. But amping up pay grades isn't going to solve recruitment problems, at least not by itself. Outbidding for candidates is a quick fix that can leave a turnover trail of hired guns in its wake. The top IT professionals are motivated by skills exposure - acquiring great experience in a work environment that keeps things fresh, but doesn't gobble up their work/life balance.

One example from Mike Macrie, CIO Land O'Lakes. Macrie's recruitment hunt takes place in the "hyper-competitive" area of Minnesota's twin cities. When asked how he motivates top applicants to join Land O'Lakes, Macrie said:

We articulate an exciting vision for the company and for the IT organization. Many other companies cannot clearly articulate their vision for IT and seem to be more focused on using compensation as a motivator. Compensation maybe a short-term motivator, but that employee is not likely to make a long-term commitment to the corporation. Recently, we’ve also been successful in hiring and retaining employees because of a $100 million program that’s transforming our IT culture to one that is focused on our customers, both internal and external.

5. Beef up upskilling programs that combine tech skills with leadership development. In Federal CIOs struggle to recruit and retain top IT talent, examines the U.S. CIO Council's recruiting tactics. U.S. CIO Tony Scott has prioritized the CIO Council, a consortium of U.S. tech leads.

Council member Richard Kinney, explained how the Council supports his efforts to nurture young employees:

Tony came in [and] one of the things that he's challenging all of us with is succession planning. How are you preparing the younger employees to assume these roles when you are gone?

That's a welcome change:

McKinney acknowledges that government leaders could do a better job of nurturing young employees -- not coddling them, but engaging more directly with them to help design a career path and match them with challenges and opportunities for development.

However, these upskilling programs need a broader focus that tech skills. As tech becomes central to business, the so-called "soft skills" to work across silos become essential. As Mike Casey of the General Services Administration put it:

At some point, no matter how good you are as an IT specialist, the odds are you're going to end up supervising and managing and leading IT specialists. We can't wait and then try and start teaching folks those skills, as well. So we need that holistic approach right from the get-go.

My take - proven tactics help, but change is hard

I picked these five tactics because they cover the bases from IT-HR collaboration to IT-as-business-drive. But there are more. talks about partnering with Silicon Valley for recruits - which beats the heck out of losing all the best candidates to SV.

In Gartner's "CIO 2016" session, they include several talent worksheets. Tips I haven't mentioned include:

  • Make more hires from the rest of the business and developmental rotations
  • Build closer relationships with universities (internships, junior hires, developing existing talent)
  • Consider "Techquisitions" to capture talent

Talent is hard because the culture around IT organizations can't be fixed with money alone. Better recruiting tactics will help, but nothing takes the place of building a company job seekers are inherently attracted to.

Social recruitment has its perils. I spoke with one senior manager recently who told me that LinkedIn has been problematic for sourcing new talent. Why? Because some of the top candidates, the ones knee-deep in tech/biz fusion and service delivery, aren't always busy on LinkedIn. Just because a candidate is active socially doesn't mean they are more qualified than those who are too busy on customer-facing projects to update their LinkedIn profiles.

Gartner noted that CIO's need analytics talent but can't source it from their own organization - that's troubling. It points to siloed departments and lack of cross-department teaming.  For analytics talent, companies might not have a choice. Hunting down "data science unicorns" from outside the organization isn't going to work. And it's not the right approach to building data science teams anyhow.

If talent shortages truly are the biggest impediment for CIOs,  expect hard rowing ahead in 2016.

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