by Todd Datz

IT Staff Development: How to Launch a Leader

Sep 15, 200315 mins
IT Leadership

At ING U.S. Financial Services, Irene Heege serves side by side with four business leaders on a team that guides one of the company’s five major business lines. Heege represents IT in this group, but she’s not, as you might expect, the CIO. She is head of worksite application services—a techie. Heege has the credibility, the skills and the authority to help make million-dollar decisions because of her on-the-job experience and ING’s emphasis on leadership development.

An example of that leadership development focus is ING’s Talent Review Initiative. Participants—generally the top 2 percent of the IT staff in skill levels and accomplishment—receive extra training, both onsite and offsite, and become candidates for ING’s business school program in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (the home of parent company ING Group). There, employees might take courses in banking, insurance and leadership, get coached in management skills and be assigned mentors. The program is meant to serve ultimately as a stepping-stone to senior management.

Intensive leadership training like this is the exception rather than the rule among corporate IT departments. Identifying candidates, creating leadership programs and administering them was a daunting challenge during the hectic days of rapid growth, and still is in today’s overworked and undermanned environment. But companies as diverse as ING, trucking giant Schneider National and IT services company Unisys recognize that growing and molding future IT executives is critical to the long-term success of their organizations.

These companies teach their IT staffs communication skills, help them understand the business and instill a culture grounded in values. They identify high-potential people early in their careers and put them on separate development tracks, making sure they build leadership and people management skills through training, coaching, mentoring and working with business peers (skills far different from those they’ll acquire in the latest SQL Server or XML-coding course). And most important, their CIOs have made a commitment to developing and nurturing their successors.

ING’s Talent Review Initiative was created to fill a gap, says CIO and Executive Vice President Paul Donovan—one that he believes is still prevalent in the world of IT. “Identifying the high-potential people and those that will make great managers and leaders is not something IT has done a good job at,” he says. “People are picked without a lot of training to fill a void. You give them a shot; what you haven’t done is prepared them for this new role. They’ve gone from writing a program or fixing a problem [to managing people], and it’s a very different role.”

Randy Mott, the CIO at Dell, attributes part of the problem to the fact that IT is still toddling around in diapers, relatively speaking. “The issue starts with how companies perceive their IT organizations,” he says. “With the function being relatively young as an industry, most companies view the CIO as the single source for decision making and strategy development, so the second tier of IT leadership doesn’t always get the exposure necessary to develop their leadership skills.”

The end result for many IT departments: managerial ranks chock-full of people who are highly qualified technology specialists but underqualified motivators and leaders of people. IT staff notice this and resent it, according to a recent CIO survey. A whopping 93 percent said their CIOs don’t spend enough time developing future IT leaders. (For more about the survey and tips for managing staff, see “What They’re Saying About You,” Page 60.)

In a 10-person IT department, that may not matter. In a 100- or 1,000-person staff, a lack of leaders can put a major hurt on efforts to weave technology into the business. Today, IT managers need to work side by side with their business counterparts and be able to communicate in the language of ROI and customer satisfaction, not just the techno-speak flung around in the server room. They must understand underlying business processes and be able to suggest improvements. They need to help make the business cases for new IT projects and convince executives of their merits.

Here’s another reason to make sure you’re growing future leaders: Though the staffing crunch of the late ’90s may seem as distant as the dream of bug-free software, at some point the economy is going to leave its moribund state and begin to pick up steam. As soon as that happens, your most valuable employees will begin sniffing the air for new opportunities. To keep your people happy—and in their seats—you must allow the future managers, directors and CIOs to gain the same core leadership skills that paved the way for your entrance into the boardroom.

Get on the Leadership Track

At Schneider National, home of the familiar fleet of vivid orange 18-wheelers that traverse America’s highways daily, the 425-person IT department is divided into two tracks. One is technical: Employees choosing this career path take on roles and responsibilities that require technical competency in areas such as operating systems and product development. Those folks—the hard-core techies who find pleasure (and pain) in the nodes, nooks and crannies of networks—manage machines but, by choice, no people. The other track is managerial: IT staffers who choose this path desire a career that, in addition to developing their technology chops, gives them the opportunity to manage others. “We allow people to see where they want to go,” says CIO Steve Matheys. “If they want to be a leader of people, we focus their career on management and people attributes rather than Java programming skills.” Currently, 88 percent of his IT staffers are pursuing the technical track; the other 12 percent are the department’s future managers.

Tom Moule is climbing the rungs of Schneider’s managerial ladder. He joined the IT staff six years ago as a lead technical staffer, just as the dual-track structure was being put into place. “I was focused on projects. I said to my manager, [Managing people] is what I’m interested in. Roughly six months later an opportunity came up to lead a team,” he says. His career has been marked by increasing responsibility: In his first year, he managed a team of eight; now, as director of application development, he manages more than 90 full-timers and about 60 contractors. He also cochairs (along with an exec from the business side) the Transportation Steering Committee, which approves and tracks the company’s transportation business unit projects—a nod to the fact that at Schneider, IT leaders are most certainly business leaders.

Of all the tasks Moule has taken on in his leadership development, he cites several presentations he’s given as key learning experiences. He spoke at a Balanced Scorecard conference and at a conference sponsored by the Research Board, and he has also made presentations to Schneider’s CIO, CEO and IT executives. He says the discipline of gathering information and communicating it well to an audience has been an education in itself, bolstered by coaching from various IT leaders on how to improve his technique. “Plus feedback when I’ve done a good job,” he adds. Sometimes a pat on the back can be just as important as a “here’s how you could have done this better” lecture.

Moule lists several other important benefits from the company’s leadership training. They include critical-thinking skills (“being able to ask the right questions,” he says); synthesizing the data he receives daily to make decisions without suffering from “analysis paralysis”; and understanding the individual skills and strengths of the people he manages and “realizing that you can’t manage everyone the same way.” He lists one more outcome of his management-track training: “The confidence my leadership has shown in me to give me additional responsibility and the support I need in that role, but not to micromanage me.” Birds gotta fly, after all.

It should be clear to all CIOs by now that the age-old practice of promoting techies to management positions—people who would be much happier ensconced in the server room—does not bode well for the future of your IT department. “You have to realize that the IT job is not just a technical job. It’s really about a third business acumen, a third technical skills and a third leadership,” says Dell’s Mott. “The first thing you have to do is change IT’s mind-set away from thinking, The only thing I have to worry about is having technical skills. How you work with business partners and understand the business you’re in takes technical skills and leadership skills. One common mistake, in my opinion, is [IT departments] don’t focus on leadership until someone’s been in IT a long time, 10-plus years. It’s too late at that point.”

In early 2002, Mott held a two-day summit called the Leadership Imperative with around 200 of his IT managers (that is, all those who manage people). Dell President and COO Kevin Rollins helped introduce the new philosophy to the IT team (the program was also rolled out in Dell’s other business units). The event’s main purpose was to get the managers thinking about why leadership is so important and to help them develop their people skills. This year’s leadership program, called Developing Champions, was launched in January. All IT managers around the globe will complete the program by January 2004. Developing Champions focuses on building better relationships with internal business partners and gaining financial acumen around company metrics.

People Skills and Technology—a Dynamic Duo

Denene Coyle, Unisys’s director of global training and development, has spent 30 years at the technology services company, carving out a dual role in the IT and finance departments. On the techy side, Coyle handles training activities for the company’s internal ERP system. She also serves on seven organizational excellence teams and develops IT training curricula. On the finance side, Coyle provides curriculum advice for the IT finance and procurement courses at Unisys University, the company’s in-house training program. How did this unique position come about? “I wrote a white paper that created this job,” she says, matter-of-factly. She reports to the CFO, Janet Haugen, but both Haugen and CIO John Carrow give her performance reviews.

Coyle highlights the organizational excellence teams as particularly important in developing leadership skills. Carrow adapted the concept from his days at GE and the city of Philadelphia, and brought it to Unisys about four years ago. The idea behind the teams is to get IT workers involved in meaty organizational issues that go beyond technical concerns. So, for example, teams have formed around how to assimilate employees better into the company, how to communicate better, how to improve skills and how to get better at identifying employees’ areas of expertise. About 15 to 20 volunteers join each team. “The [organizational excellence] teams helped us identify key leaders [via seeing] who became the natural leaders of teams,” says Carrow, who heads a staff of 850. “There was a high degree of correlation with the talent review process in the company.”

For Coyle, the benefits of working on those teams go beyond the specific subject matter. Because the teams are voluntary and don’t have a big stick to wave to “cajole” others in the company, Coyle has learned collaboration and influence skills. “You’re a motivator and cheerleader and someone who needs to communicate well to get people on board,” she says.

Coyle is a big believer in participating in the more informal activities that a large company offers—both for altruistic ends and for the leadership opportunities that those activities present. “When I talk to people about leadership and career advancement, I always talk about the nontraditional activities, things outside of your job,” she says. She chairs the Unisys professional women’s forum (which helps develop women’s careers) and heads one of the three teams that compose the company’s North American diversity council. “At Unisys, being able to matrix-manage [that is, manage people and projects that don’t report to you] across a variety of organizations is key. Those are difficult skills to hone. Through some of the activities I’ve been involved in, I’ve been able to practice those skills. The higher up you go, you have to be able to influence people, to collaborate. You have to convince people that what you’re recommending is the right thing. You have to learn how to influence without the strong hammer of having them report to you,” Coyle says.

Not to be overlooked are the networking prospects these activities offer. “You meet people you’d never meet in your traditional role, and that allows you to have opportunities in areas of companies you wouldn’t normally have,” she says. Coyle makes a good point—slapping backs, shaking hands and trading war stories with leaders in other IT or business units can add a little turbo boost to one’s journey up the corporate hierarchy. Meeting people outside company walls has been valuable to Coyle. “That grounds you in making sure you clearly understand the company’s positioning in the marketplace and what customers think is important,” she says.

Ultimately, one of the most important goals in leadership development has to be growing and nurturing people skills, the human qualities necessary to lead. That’s an aspect often overlooked. Often, people’s leadership qualities are judged strictly on how good they are at getting results—achieving the goals of their business units, for example. But believing that making your numbers makes you a good leader is like saying that playing a mean clarinet turns you into a great bandleader. Great leaders possess the whole package; they get results and know how to motivate and get the best from people.

Leadership author Terry Pearce says that execs who want to be more effective leaders should observe four principles: understanding what your values are, creating the courage to speak about your values, developing the necessary emotional intelligence to lead and learning how to connect with people at the limbic level (that is, through emotion and motivation). Pearce, who wrote Leading Out Loud and founded the consultancy Leadership Communication, recommends that his clients get 360-degree feedback on their leadership performance from their bosses, peers and the people they manage.

The results can be surprising. One exec he worked with at Charles Schwab several years ago, Pearce says, “was the most dynamic, smartest person I’d ever met, but he intimidated the hell out of people.” When the exec’s direct reports gave him performance assessments, the feedback was exactly what Pearce expected: He was competent, but people hated to be around him. The exec couldn’t change his behavior, however, and ended up leaving Schwab.

Taking Care of Business

As befits someone who’s absorbed a great deal of management know-how while ascending the IT ranks, ING’s Heege can rattle off a list of competencies necessary for leadership. “It’s about being able to create a vision, build a high-performing team, make sure the right talent is in the right position, execute, challenge the status quo to ensure we’re creating fresh thinking and relationship management skills—building relationships with our business partners,” she says.

Business relationship management, as Heege calls it, is a critical component of the well-rounded IT leader. “The way to build strong relationships is to really know the business, talk the business language, and, as the technology needs are expressed [by the business], you come back and deliver solutions,” she says. But to deliver solutions, she emphasizes that potential IT leaders had better know technology well enough to be able to show the business how it can meet its needs in different ways, thereby increasing business value.

Heege has built an affinity for the business side through several affiliations: project management training at Boston University, a women’s leadership council at a previous job and an internal leadership council at ING U.S. (headed by CEO Tom McInerney). Her role on ING’s Defined Contributions Market team, which was formed in November 2002, is both her reward for business knowledge and a high-level training ground. “To have respect on the team, you need to know the business, have passion for the business and have the desire for the business to succeed,” she says.

Harrah’s Entertainment builds business expertise among IT staffers through its Executive Associate program, which pairs potential leaders with senior executives in the company for about 18 months. Executive Associates are given special projects to help them grow as leaders. Sometimes they even vault the IT wall: Tim Stanley, CIO of Harrah’s Entertainment, notes that one IT staffer worked for the COO, then was promoted to vice president of strategic sourcing.

For hospitality companies like Royal Caribbean, it all comes down to taking care of people. So CIO Tom Murphy has come up with an innovative way of targeting future IT leaders—he sees which folks shine brightest in the company’s community service initiatives. The company’s annual Give Day event requires some people to coordinate projects with a number of nonprofit organizations. “It’s the single largest one-company community service event in Florida,” Murphy proudly notes. “We observe who shows an aptitude for leadership on those projects. Those people tend to get a little bit more opportunities. They’re actively engaged in the culture of the organization, taking on additional responsibilities. Passion is an important part of effective leadership,” he adds.

Are you passionate about developing leaders? If not, now’s a good time to get on board. Maintaining the status quo will guarantee you and your crew sure passage to mediocrity.