Growing Great Leaders

Dan Olley, CIO of Elsevier, shares his approach

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When Dan Olley, now CIO of Elsevier, was CTO of Reed Business Information, he developed quite a few successful IT leaders.

Five of his direct reports went on to become CIOs or CTOs within the Reed Elsevier group or other companies; five middle managers became VPs in other companies; four technologists are now running product management functions outside of IT, and when Olley left the company, he had a choice of three people to promote into his own role.

CIOs who can look across industry and see a coterie of leaders that they have developed are in an enviable position of true gratification.  Not only do they tend to have great leadership teams to help them be successful, they also know that they have left a positive mark on the profession and made a difference to a large number of individual lives.

So, how does one raise a whole group of successful IT leaders?   Let’s begin at the beginning.

The interview

“I never talk to candidates about their CVs,” says Olley. “They can write and I can read; we know that.” Rather than focus on specific skills and experiences, Olley interviews for raw capabilities.  “I am looking for two things,” he says.  “Clear thinkers: people who can cut through day-to-day ambiguity to create clarity on how to move forward; and strategic pragmatists: people who are strategic enough to make a plan but pragmatic enough to know that they might not implement all of it.”

Olley breaks his interviews into six areas of focus:  technology, process and practice, talent acquisition and development, leadership, commercial acumen, and personal efficiency. “When I go through each area, I’ll ask a high level question first,” he says. “You would be amazed by how many people I’ve interviewed who have big jobs but can’t answer some basic gating questions, like the real difference between Capex and Opex.”  

Commercial acumen. Once he gets a solid answer on the definitions of Capex and Opex, Olley asks a number of follow-ups:  How does Capex actually hit the P&L? Walk through that process. Explain whether it would be good or bad to capitalize an internal full time employee? Why?  “I’m looking for a deep understanding of these financial mechanisms,” he says. “I’m peeling back the layers.  It’s one thing to understand basic financial terms, but how deeply does the candidate understand how these financial processes actually work?”

Technology skills. On the topic of technology, Olley might ask candidates to discuss the difference between a traditional relational database and a NoSQL repository.  “If they can answer that question, I’ll ask them when they would use each. What would be the key drivers?” he says. “I want to know that they truly understand the concepts and can apply them.”

Leadership. Here, Olley focuses on change.  He asks the candidate to talk about an example of where they’ve led change, and what they’ve learned from it. “When you talk to people about change, they usually talk about leading a reorganization,” he says.  “But that’s the most basic kind of change.  I’m looking for something deeper.”  Olley recalls a candidate who did very well in the discussion about change.  “He told me that their business was hemorrhaging, and they knew they needed to change.  He talked about changing the very core of their business model, altering the product release schedule to help users through the change, and building change right into the product.  He spoke about change at every level.” The candidate demonstrated to Olley that he was a change leader in the very way he thought.  “Rather than say, ‘I reorganized the team,’ he showed me that he knew that everything about his job, at every level, is change,” Olley says.

Personal effectiveness.  “I’ve met too many people who sit at their desks, forward an email, and then wait to take action until they get a response,” says Olley.  “I ask candidates questions like: how do you stop an email trail? How do you actually get work done?  I don’t want to hear, ‘I work on the weekends.’” Olley does not really care what the candidate’s approach to personal effectiveness is, only that he has one. “One candidate got his iPad out and showed me how he organized his work.  All I’m looking for is a real mechanism. Just show me that you take personal efficiency seriously.”

Once they are on board:

Teaching commercial acumen:  To focus his team on the importance of business goals, Olley makes those goals a part of every conversation and every review. “Everything we do leads with the commercial impact,” says Olley.  Olley has gone so far as to ban one standard question from the steering committee:  Are you on time and on budget?  To Olley, timescales and budgets are important, but only in the context of whether the project will hit commercial benefit. If overruns on budget and time do not affect the commercial benefit, he reasons, should we spend time and money trying to pull them back in?  “The response has to be proportionate to the impact on the benefits,” he says. “If all you ask about is cost and time line, then every project that has a hiccup is treated with equal fervor.”

Softskills:  At Elsevier, all employees have competency goals including leading change, team building, interpersonal skills, and a focus on results.  With technologists, says Olley, it is especially important to focus on the softer skills. “You take developers who have spent the first ten years of their career wearing headphones and looking at their screens, and then throw them into the rough and tumble of the business world, and expect them to adapt. We need get over what technologists tend to be in terms of their makeup and help them develop new competencies.”

At Elsevier, developers are not promoted to senior developers unless they develop the ability to mentor and communicate. “The difference between a developer and a senior developer is not just technology acumen,” says Olley. “It’s competencies.  You could be the best developer we have, but if you can’t take on a mentorship role, you won’t become a senior developer.”

A word of advice

If you are interviewing on skills like clear thinking and strategic pragmatism, and then embedding commercial acumen and change leadership into your career pathing process, you will wind up with a team of highly marketable people. “When my middle managers get approached for jobs, they talk about ROI and results, in a way you would typically only hear from a more senior IT leader,” he says.

Olley has found that his team regularly gets approached for jobs that that are considerably more senior than the ones they are in. “When you have great people and you develop them, of course you worry about keeping them,” he says.  “We try and provide great environments, interesting problems to solve and opportunities for learning and advancement, but even with all of this. I’ve lost people I did not want to lose. You have to accept that people don’t stay at one company for life anymore” say Olley, “so I look at my job as helping grow individuals while they are with us. They learn new skills and in return do great things for the organization. If they get a really good opportunity outside the organization we talk about it openly, and if it’s right for them they go with my support.

Losing good people is inevitable and can actually be an opportunity to promote others within the organization, according to Olley, “don’t be scared to grow great people” he says “instead focus on having great succession and growing new talent from the bottom up”. You’re going to lose from the top, so you need to bring in and develop the right people at the bottom, this is why we’re so focused on our entry level programs. But when all is said and done, seeing so many of our people fly both within and outside the organization is a great feeling. And the real sign of success? How many come back to us first, with all the new skills and experience they’ve gained, when they want their next opportunity.

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals, empowering them to make better decisions, deliver better care, and sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries that advance the boundaries of knowledge and human progress. Elsevier provides web-based, digital solutions — among them ScienceDirect, Scopus, Elsevier Research Intelligence, and ClinicalKey — and publishes nearly 2,200 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and over 25,000 book titles, including a number of iconic reference works. The company is part of Reed Elsevier Group PLC, a world leading provider of professional information solutions in the Science, Medical, Legal and Risk and Business sectors, which is jointly owned by Reed Elsevier PLC and Reed Elsevier NV. 

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