Forging Good Leaders in Bad Times

Leadership development doesn't stop when the going gets tough. If anything, investing in the next generation matters now more than ever.

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When the Red Cross's Modell was employed by the Washington Post, he worked closely with a vice president he was charged with supporting. She asked him to develop an IT road map for the business. But both quickly realized there was no clear business strategy on which to pin a technology plan. So together they built an IT-business strategy and a supporting IT road map. "I had always been a bit skeptical about the actual impact that the development of a vision could have," admits Modell. "By seeing the entire team rally around the direction and by participating in decisions to adjust priorities and kill projects, I gained an appreciation for their value."

At the Red Cross, he led his own leadership team with developing a mission, vision and road map. And while at the Post, he insisted on at least a full day each year in a business role. "There is great advantage to requiring all IT staff to [work] side-by-side with someone in the business," says Modell, who once spent a night distributing newspapers to understand part of the Post's business model.

Freedom to Fail

Some future leaders are easy to recognize. Amtrak's Waddell achieved the rank of Eagle Scout by 13. He helped to set up an Internet-like computer messaging system when he was 14. He earned his real estate license at 18. And at 19, he licensed designs from his T-shirt business to a national, multimillion dollar company.

Still, Waddell insists he is a business and IT leader made, not born. And his most formative experiences have been, by most measures, failures.

After getting his MBA, he jumped at the chance to work with an Internet start-up at a Midwestern venture capital firm that went through an IPO, but eventually went out of business. "I find myself fortunate that I escaped without much harm, while learning that business is about bottom-line financial results—not the euphoria of high-growth website clicks," Waddell says. He joined Motorola, leading the development of a Web-based product that would enable the equipment manufacturer to bypass wireless carriers and sell to consumers directly. That never happened. But Waddell racked up significant experience as a corporate director for a Fortune 50 company. Then it was on to United Airlines, where he helped lead development of a new joint venture in the customer loyalty space. But after less than a year, the venture's partner panicked. United filed for Chapter 11 protection later that year. Waddell eventually left, but not before taking over the P&L for United.com and developing a reputation for driving strong product strategy and delivering projects with significant benefits amid company turmoil.

Corporate failures were leadership-building exercises that helped Waddell deal with his current challenge—turning around an IT department at Amtrak, where the business loathed IT and had built up the shadow IT organizations to prove it. He credits his success in rebuilding the broken business-IT relationship partly to his boss. "A key factor is that [CIO] Ed [Trainor] has created a safe environment where I am not afraid to take calculated risks," Waddell says. "When issues arise, he and I work together and focus on how to address and resolve them."

Trainor manages the risk of giving key assignments to Waddell and his other top leaders through "training and mentoring, and moving them judiciously into more responsibility," he says.

Hicks wasn't the logical choice to turn around a Toyota dealer extranet project that was years late, millions of dollars over budget and lacked a business sponsor. But Hicks, since elevated to vice president of administrative services, turned out to be the man for a floundering project. CIO Barbra Cooper didn't want just another IT project manager to take the wheel, so she took a chance on Hicks.

"Barbra liked that I didn't approach this challenge with the technological solutions first. I approached it from a more management-science perspective—financials, people and process—versus relying on what the current Gantt chart said." Hicks turned the project around with high satisfaction rates at headquarters.

Indeed, McFarlan says, giving budding leaders project management control of ever-larger programs is critical in preparing them to take over the top IT spot. Heading an enterprisewide project was cited by 77 percent of survey respondents as a "very effective" form of leadership training.

That can be trickier on the infrastructure side. Before Modell took on the customer support role at Red Cross, he focused solely on project management, strategy and software development. Two years ago, he decided to challenge himself and applied for an infrastructure role for which he had no experience. To his surprise, they gave him the reins of the 245-person group with a $30 million budget. "I appreciate that Mark [Weischedel] and the previous CIO took a risk and gave me this opportunity," Modell says.

"In this position, I've been able to pull together all of my learnings and try them out on a larger scale." Modell transformed the department from geographically to competency-based, drove a 66 percent reduction in average IT case closure time and a 96 percent decrease in case backlog, and led the development of an Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) incident-management process.

Weischedel says he can't take a chance on just anyone. "There is a balance between show' and grow' in an assignment. Overextending someone's responsibilities beyond their performance capabilities is risky and can be a setup for failure," he says. "I don't ever want to put someone in a job they can't succeed in doing, so it's always a judgment call." Modell applied the experience to his own group at Red Cross. "As I've gained an understanding of my staff's talents, I've looked for opportunities to stretch them," he says.

That's an area of difficulty for the DOE's Cooke who knows his staff needs stretch assignments to grow. "In the past, I've been guilty of taking on too much personally and not delegating enough to my direct reports," Cooke says. "While it may take more time initially to delegate to staff and guide them, in the long run it's a win for all involved." As his boss, Department of Energy CIO Tom Pyke says, "There is always a risk when delegating work, especially when stretching individuals beyond their past experience. [But] this is a key part of learning to be a manager in any area, including being a CIO."

Pyke is trying to practice what he preaches with all of his staff, not just the standouts. "It's always important to challenge individuals—all employees, not just those who have significant potential as future leaders," says Pyke. "As these individuals grow, they learn to apply a similar model as they mentor others who are more junior than themselves."

Stephanie Overby is a freelance writer based in Boston.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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