by Maryfran Johnson

Leadership Isn’t a Fairy Tale After All

May 01, 2011
IT Leadership

Personal attention and hands-on involvement can make good IT managers great IT leaders

Writing about leadership feels a bit like writing about unicorns, those mythical creatures that have inspired fairy tales since ancient times. There is that same elusive, almost unattainable quality to everything related to leadership: describing it, finding it, developing it.

Yet we never tire of trying to capture the essence of leadership, that magical touch some people have in inspiring and influencing others to be their best and to do great things. Despite the many metric tons of books and articles written about this subject, most of our workplaces are still better at identifying its absence than encouraging its growth.

We just proved that again in our recent CIO Executive Council survey of 328 IT executives, which turned up a lamentable lack of leadership development activities at most companies today. Yet there are bright spots worth focusing on and learning from, as you’ll see in our cover story on leadership development (“Secrets to Building a Deeper Bench”).

Our story spells out detailed tactics and practical ideas that CIOs can use to turn good IT managers into potentially great IT leaders. The story also highlights this year’s 25 winners of our Ones to Watch awards, produced by our CIO Executive Council to honor a group of rising stars and next-generation CIOs.

You’ll notice a strong thread of personal attention and hands-on involvement from the very top at the companies developing a strong bench of future leaders. At GlaxoSmithKline, for example, the CEO walks the walk on one-to-one leadership development by holding regular career conversations with his senior leadership team. His CIO, Bill Louv, then makes sure that style of direct communication flows downward to the IT team. “If you don’t take time to talk to people about their professional development,” Louv notes, “it just doesn’t get done.”

PepsiCo is another bright light in this realm with a program called The Lab, which fosters leadership development across various business units by bringing together 30 of them at a time to form strategic problem-solving teams. And at Jacobs Engineering, CIO Cora Carmody connects on a more personal level, emailing coffee-talk questions to her global staff every two weeks to get conversations going on everything from personal dreams to world views. As Carmody puts it: “We CIOs should always be looking for new leaders.” Excellent advice for any company’s leadership team.

Not the stuff of fairy tales at all.

Maryfran Johnson is the editor in chief of CIO Magazine & Events. E-mail her at