by Polly Schneider Traylor

Advanced Leadership Learning

Oct 01, 20028 mins

He is 19 years old, with no college degree. He has just been promoted to manage the night shift at Bradford National Computer Services in Teaneck, N.J. His 15 employees are all at least twice his age. He holds a meeting to get the age issue out on the table, assuring the staff he will have an open leadership style. He also informs them that he won’t tolerate people sleeping at work or sneaking off to the neighborhood bar. He’s seen them do that before, but they better not try it under his watch. Most of the workers eventually back him up, but a few don’t, undoubtedly thinking, Excuse me, but I’m not taking orders from a teenager. First test of leadership: Make it up as you go and pray for survival.

That was Vincent Scilla in 1976; Vincent Scilla today is a veteran IT executive, having been CIO of Mellon Investor Services in Ridgefield Park, N.J., until recently. So it may come as a surprise that Scilla, with proven leadership abilities and years of senior management under his belt, would sign up for a leadership education course. Yet Scilla says his recent experience at Carnegie Mellon University’s CIO Institute was invaluable?particularly the program’s four-day leadership module. The hard-charging 45-year-old New Jersey native believes he is now more patient, due to the extensive knowledge of organizational culture and personal psychology he picked up at the institute.

Leadership education can be broad, vague and generally unhelpful unless it gives participants practical information and tools they can immediately apply back at the office. For senior managers especially, the curriculum should be hands-on, highly interactive and focused on self-growth rather than textbooks, and the schedule must be convenient and flexible. “From my perspective I have an operation to run, so I need application, not theory,” says Jeannie Winston, CIO at the University of Arkansas and a graduate of the CIO Institute.

The institute accomplishes these aims while allowing CIOs to interact with like-minded colleagues. Launched in 1999 to fulfill the educational mandate of the federal CIO Council, the institute is aimed at up-and-coming federal government IT chiefs. By design, a quarter of the participants come from the private sector so that the two sides can see how the other half lives. Students must complete eight courses?each have four- to five-day modules occurring every other month?in order to receive a CIO certificate from Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon.

Students rate the leadership module as the highlight of the program, which also includes units on strategy, information security, e-government and others. Former students say they are seeing results. Scilla says the course’s hands-on exercises were more applicable to his career than those from past management training. In particular, a 360-degree leadership inventory survey told Scilla that colleagues and direct reports felt he was weak at challenging employees to do their best. Scilla began looking for ways he could put himself on a limb without jeopardizing his job.

A golden opportunity arose when he was offered a job as the head of Mellon’s new consulting subsidiary. Instead of charging clients by the hour, Scilla felt the more competitive route was to offer a fixed price per project. The outcome was mixed, but the division did not lose money, and Scilla learned an important lesson in how to take calculated risks. Ready for a change, he left Mellon in January and now brings his leadership survey results to job interviews?another chancy move but one that he believes builds trust with potential employers.

Terri Morgan, CIO of the Department of Energy’s Chicago operations, had to lobby her boss for approval to attend the CIO Institute and cut her department’s travel budget to cover the bimonthly trips to Virginia. But she says the course was well worth the sacrifice, particularly the negotiations strategy part of the curriculum. The skills came in handy when her boss wanted to have an all-important IS group secretary also work with the HR department, a move that Morgan knew would be too much for any one person. Armed with advice from her classmates, she approached her boss with a compromise solution to share the secretary with another, smaller department, to which the boss finally agreed.

The CIO Institute strives to differentiate itself from other leadership courses by focusing on classroom interaction and experiential learning, according to instructors Mary Gail Biebel and Richard Friend, both organizational development consultants. On the first day, Biebel and Friend ask students to introduce themselves by sharing stories of leadership challenges from their work or personal life. Later in the day, small groups of students break out to discuss the results of their leadership surveys, analyze each other’s personality traits and discuss how those affect leadership styles. On days two and three, the instructors cover strategies for managing large-scale change in organizations, resolving conflicts and negotiating. “Some of [the tools] are so simple it’s almost embarrassing,” says Biebel, who holds a PhD in counseling psychology. “But I work with a lot of senior people, and if it takes more than five minutes, they won’t use it.”

One such tool is the Payoff Matrix, a form that helps leaders map out the various stages of planning a change. Using the matrix consistently, Biebel says, helps illuminate the surprise factor that often accompanies major changes. Another exercise oft-cited by graduates of the course is a card game in which the players seated around the table do not share the same rules and cannot communicate other than through hand signals. “It helped to understand office structure?how a new person often doesn’t understand the rules and expectations,” Morgan says.

Leadership Lessons

Although Biebel and Friend say that CIOs require an analytical and practical approach to leadership, many of the concepts they learn at the CIO Institute are the same for any aspiring executive. When the federal CIO Council approved the program, it handed Carnegie Mellon a list of 80 learning objectives, which include standard management fare like communication skills, group behavior principles and decision making (see “An Objective Syllabus,” this page).

Using the learning objectives as a guideline, Biebel and Friend have incorporated their own experience of coaching leaders in corporate America, along with concepts from The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (Jossey-Bass, 2002). The best-selling book provides instruction on developing five practices of “exemplary leadership”: challenging the process, inspiring a shared vision, enabling others to act, modeling the way and encouraging the heart.

For his part, Leadership Challenge coauthor Kouzes says great leaders are not born from the classroom. “Work-life experiences are still the best and most available opportunities for learning,” he says. Although Kouzes, a San Francisco-based leadership consultant, recommends a minimum of 50 hours per year of formal training, he says leadership development for executives should also include regular opportunities for gathering feedback, reflecting upon and recording lessons from critical incidents, and meeting with an adviser or coach.

Kouzes believes that leadership education fails when it is either too broad?such as survey courses at a university?or too narrow, as with vendors that claim their product is the 100 percent solution. In his view, the most important learning for leaders is to understand how to deal with the emotions of others. This ability is more important than ever given the changing context of leadership. The recession, the horrific events of 9/11 and the ongoing corporate accounting scandals have created a climate of uncertainty in which leaders must demonstrate caring, respect for others’ values and commitment to people over profits, Kouzes says.

Biebel agrees that making classroom learning applicable to real-life challenges is not easy. Too often, leadership training fails because it ends with the course. Students take tools (if they learn any at all) back to work without advice on how to apply them. Overcoming this tendency calls for initiative and commitment, despite whatever tricky corporate culture the executive faces at the office. “The task of leadership is to do it even if it’s hard,” Biebel says.

With effort, most people can improve their leadership skills?but wanting the responsibility is another thing. Good leaders must have an underlying desire to solve those tricky human relations problems that surface every day. “If you don’t enjoy managing or leading people, you’re in the wrong job,” Scilla says. If nothing else, leadership courses like Carnegie Mellon’s are an excellent way to help weed out those managers who discover during the training that they would rather spend their time developing products and making money than developing and molding employees into a team.