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Teaching Johnny to Lead

Teaching Johnny to Lead

Compared with number five, the other items on a typical CIO's to-do list are easy. But turn Johnny-who's a terrific programmer but also a guy who mumbles, forgets to say hello to his coworkers and has only the vaguest notion of what the company actually does-into a leader? Now that's a tough one.

Can leadership be learned? Can it be taught? And is it important enough for busy IT managers to place high on their list of priorities?

Apparently, the answers are yes, yes and you betcha. In a recent CIO Web site survey of more than 300 information executives, 78 per cent said that inculcating leadership in their staffs was their most important job. Sadly, more than half of those who recognised its importance said they didn't spend enough time on it.

James Kinney, senior vice president and CIO for Kraft Foods, says it's only in recent years that he has seen the topic of leadership move to the forefront as an item for executives to check off on their IT to-do lists. "We are starting to take on leadership roles within our companies, and therefore we need to start implementing leadership throughout the entire IS organisation. It's absolutely essential," Kinney says.

The reasons for this are many.

For one, today's geographically far-flung organisations often require IT staffers to jump from one speedy, complex project to another, working on teams that blend IT and business staff. If Johnny (remember Johnny?) doesn't understand the business, he's not going to be able to lead the business people on his team to a useful understanding of the technology he's bringing them, no matter how good he is with the bits and bytes. And speaking of teams, Joyce Edwards, director of the executive resources management office for the federal Office of Personnel Management, which is the office responsible for overseeing the qualifications of federal senior executives, including CIOs, points out that because so many organisations are turning to teams to accomplish their goals, more leaders are now needed at all levels, not just the top ones.

Most important, as Matt Hintz, vice president for human resources in the systems division of health insurance, employee benefits and financial services giant Cigna, says, "If you are trying to grow an organisation, its currency is people, so you need to grow the employees as individuals. Developing leadership allows us to leverage our talent across our many lines of business."

So Johnny has to learn leadership skills because his company needs him to. Johnny is going to have to learn about the business that pays his salary. And he's going to have to learn to lead a team in order to maximise the benefit the company can gain from his experience and knowledge. And maybe by learning all this, Johnny will have more opportunity for advancement, and therefore more incentive to stick with the company that has so much invested in him instead of moving on to greener pastures. It's up to the CIO to see that Johnny becomes a lean, mean, leadership-learning machine.

Now how is he going to do that?

Back to School

Kraft foods is attempting to instill a culture of leadership (as well as disseminate a deeper understanding of its business) throughout its IT organisation by devising its own year-long program. The giant Northfield, Ill.-based food conglomerate instituted an IT leadership program that was created by Margaret Schweer, a member of the company's HR staff for the IS function. The program emphasizes the importance of leadership in career development. As Chuck Lybrook, executive director of The Information Management Forum, an executive networking organisation in Atlanta, says, "The days when IT managers were rewarded on the basis of technical expertise alone are behind us."

CIO Kinney took his hard-earned leadership knowledge and, with Schweer, put together the program, which saw its first class of 30 graduate this year. Kinney says the idea for the IT leadership curriculum came a couple of years ago while Kraft was doing its annual examination of its succession plans and began worrying about the leadership skills of its middle managers.

Kraft's first class was selected by a focus group of upper IS managers. They chose 30 participants, at a mid-career salary level, who demonstrated superior performance during their careers but needed to develop their leadership abilities. They made their determination by establishing certain defining attributes. Currently, a typical candidate for Kraft's leadership program has eight to 10 years' experience in IT, has worked on at least two long-term, relatively difficult assignments and has already demonstrated competency in both technology and in project management. The program includes the following key elements:

Motivation and coaching techniques. These are taught through group exercises, role playing and presentations by leaders inside and outside the company.

Self-Examination

Each participant undergoes a 360-degree review process in which every person they work with-their peers, the people to whom they report and the people who report to them-contribute to their evaluation. The purpose of this is to gain deeper self-knowledge-a critical requirement for any leader.

Continuing Education

Students write reviews of both business and technology books. Effective IT leaders need to keep up with current thought in both areas. There are also seminars on hot business drivers, such as e-commerce.

Business Apprenticeship

Students spend time gaining hands-on experience in one of the non-IT businesses.

Change Management

There is a session dedicated to leading change-including talks given by experienced leaders-because, as Margaret Schweer at Kraft argues, "Very often systems people are on the leading edge of change, and they need to know how to bring people along."

Communication

The program requires that participants find a way to share their experience with their departments as a way to sharpen their communication skills and to spread leadership ideas throughout the organisation.

Mentoring

Each candidate is paired with a business executive with whom she regularly meets. In an effort to facilitate a more open, honest dialogue, the business mentor is never part of the student's division.

Kinney himself leads some of the leadership sessions, sharing his experience. "I'm not a very effusive personality," says Kinney, "but I learned early in my career that it's important to have a personal touch when dealing with coworkers. It can be uncomfortable at first, but you can just give it a try." For example, Kinney has made a conscious effort to remember his employees' birthdays.

As a captain in the Navy, Kinney studied books by leadership gurus as well as several biographies of celebrated leaders such as Gen. George S. Patton. And, he says, he has learned a lot from the 360-degree review process.

"For instance," says Kinney, "perhaps because of my Navy background, I project a stern image when I take on a new assignment. I learned early on in the 360-degree review that that intimidated people. So I became very aware of how I come off and I modified my attitude."

Post-Grad Work

For Helen Woods, a business systems manager for corporate master files who was among the first graduates of the Kraft IT leadership program, the experience provided instant returns. Midway through the program, she was reassigned from accounts receivable in the sales systems unit to corporate master files in the integrated systems services unit. She was assigned a team that had been working together for more than five years and she believed her mandate was to reenergize it. She brought the problem to her classroom discussions and to conversations with her business mentor, Marla Gottschalk, vice president of marketing and strategy for the Kraft cheese division. As a result, she formed a plan to transfer some team members and bring in new blood. But Woods didn't want those transferred to feel as if they were being demoted.

"They really weren't being demoted-it was to their benefit as well as the group's that they get some new experience," she says. So she approached a couple of people on the team who she knew would be open to change "in order to lay the groundwork." She worked with those who expressed an interest in a shakeup to figure out where they would be best suited. It was a process in which everyone participated, she said, so no one felt as if they were being singled out. "I introduced [the new assignments] as a way for them to start getting new experiences and learn about new lines of business here at Kraft. They got really excited, and that in turn got the whole team excited. Marla coached me to act sooner rather than later, to act before I was out of my comfort zone."

Instead of waiting for several months in order to get to know the team as individuals, as Woods was initially inclined to do, she acted on the plan within several weeks of taking on the assignment. Waiting might have further entrenched a resistance to change, she says.

"If I hadn't been taking the class, I might have waited to act, delaying a really good and necessary change for me and those who report to me," Woods says. "The program taught me that sometimes you have to act quickly and decisively and take risks."

As Jerry Miller, senior vice president and CIO at Sears, Roebuck and , says, "Any healthy company has to encourage risk-taking and be fault-tolerant to an extent. It is very rare to look at an individual who has a career with steadily advancing responsibilities who hasn't stumbled. One of the tests of character is how the person handles adversity."

How to Identify Your Leaders

Rather than devising a formal leadership training program, some companies make leadership assessment a continuous and important piece of reviews and promotions. Much like Kraft, Sears began thinking about leadership training in a new way after a 1997 examination of its succession policies. The storied Hoffmann Estates, Ill.-based retailer knew it needed to identify the people who would be moving up the management ladder, and it began to place increasing importance on measuring leadership skills objectively, using such criteria as expense budgeting and project management success. In November 1997, an HR executive was moved into IT to help set the leadership agenda. At that time, CIO Miller assigned one of his senior IT leaders to oversee the leadership initiative and began to meet four times a year with all the senior IT executives to assess and identify potential leaders within the organisation. IT employees are now monitored and then divided into three groups: those who are ready for immediate assignment to a technology team management position; those who are likely to be candidates over the next couple of years but need more experience with project management; and those who are three to seven years away from leadership positions.

One of the tools Sears employs to make these divisions is a midyear 360-degree review process in which managers and employees are scored on their project management performance and communication skills, among other things. One of the criteria for assessing the latter is whether staffers who report to the manager being reviewed are satisfied with their access to information about, and opportunity for, career advancement. Miller says one tangible result of the company's emphasis on leadership has been the high number of people who have been promoted to senior-level management positions.

"Five years ago it was 50-50 whether we would hire someone from the outside or promote from within," Miller says. "In the past six months, all five senior leadership positions [including Miller's own] that opened up have been filled from within. The associates see that there are opportunities to grow and to be in charge of projects, so turnover is way down. We used to have turnover of 14 per cent to 18 per cent, now it is down to 8 per cent to 9 per cent. In today's climate, with the staffing crunch, that's pretty good."

Miller admits that identifying future leaders is not an easy task, but force-feeding candidates assignments with increasing degrees of responsibility often works to highlight a person's strengths and weaknesses. "I've been surprised both ways by people," Miller says. "I had one individual who did great on one project, so we gave him much more responsibility. But he couldn't handle the budgets; he couldn't deliver on time. Was it something happening at home, something beyond work? In his case, we just gave him too much too soon."

360 Degrees of Information

Noreen Iles, senior director of marketing systems at Sears, believes that the recent emphasis on and implementation of the 360-degree review process has helped identify potential leaders by flagging their interpersonal or so-called soft skills.

"For instance," says Iles, "I try to get a lot of feedback on my mentoring skills because, as we emphasise such things as leadership, it's more important that I excel at that." Iles, who came out of school with an engineering degree and has been with the company for 16 years, says, "Now, we are looking to hire and to develop people who are well-rounded, not just technically proficient."

At Philadelphia-based Cigna, the emphasis on leadership starts even before the person is hired. Cigna Vice President Hintz says that IT executives are working in tandem with HR to develop what they call "behavioural interviewing," a process that's customised to each job category and goes beyond probing for competencies and skill gaps, and gets into such issues as personality and how a person might handle any given work challenge. Simultaneously, the groundwork for career development is laid. During initial interviews, candidates meet with both IT managers and an HR person trained in interviewing techniques. Within the first year of employment, selected new hires are given a 360-degree review.

"Right away, in the interviewing process, we can begin to identify leaders and ensure they start getting the training and development they need to get there," Hintz says. "This all works in line with our philosophy that IT is not [operating] in a vacuum and needs to be closely linked to the business success of the company."

Cigna CIO Andrea Anania says that the company's 360-degree process measures such things as the candidate's analytic skills and her ability to influence and motivate others. Anania believes the 360-degree review is "absolutely essential to develop leaders. You need to understand how others view you. Everyone's surprised by something that comes out of the 360." And for Anania, the development of leaders throughout the IT organisation is such a priority that she says she plans to make the leadership development of lower-level staff a key element in how her top managers will be measured.

"We look for leadership even from our summer interns," Anania says. "But we need to be more proactive in making leadership a requirement and priority. I plan to make it clear to our leaders that we expect them to develop other leaders, and that their promotions will depend on it."

You can't get much more serious about leadership than that.

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