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Babson's IT Leadership Program

Babson's IT Leadership Program

* Learn how IT managers can develop deeper business vision * Discover what they need to know to function as strategic executives * Realise the value of executive-level training "OK. Hands. Who here has had a project killed?" Professor P.J. Guinan's gaze sweeps over the 15 students gathered in the intimate amphitheatre at Babson College one chilly morning last spring. "Tell the truth," she adds in mock-menace, lowering an eyebrow at the group.

Some hands go up. The other students offer sympathetic smiles. The classroom is filled with senior-level IT managers, each with many years under their belts, many people in their report and many dollars in their budgets. They know where Guinan is going. "I've got a couple that should be killed," offers one mid-career technology manager with more than 20 years' experience and a department of thousands. His classmates nod and laugh. They've all been there. "That's good news," exclaims Guinan, bringing home her point. "We should value a corporate culture that kills projects. It's a sign that you're on the right track."

It's day four of the inaugural Entrepreneurial Leadership Development Program for IT Professionals at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. By this point, Guinan's exhortation for honesty is redundant. With just two weeks (the first week was March 26-31; the second was June 18-23) to hone their visionary business thinking skills, students have bonded quickly. This is an intense, high-stakes environment where they have a lot to prove, both to one another and to the senior managers and CIOs who not only helped design the program but also hand-picked them to attend.

"By Tuesday, we were already saying to each other, 'Have we only been here two days?'" says attendee Sherry Higgins, a director of project management who has been with Lucent Technologies Inc. for 28 years, long before it was even called Lucent. She's been in the IT field for 17 years, and currently works in Lucent's Hampton, Ga. office. "P.J. set up an environment where people felt very comfortable. We were all sarcastic and kidding and open," she says.

In a program this focused, the students need all the jokes they can get. With just five companies invited to participate, a select group of professors, evening assignments every night and the conspicuous absence of extracurricular diversions like tee times, the aim is clearly to go deep. The goal is to turn IT technologists, all of whom are designated as executive-calibre players, into strategic change agents within their organisations.

The entrepreneurial twist is a particular necessity for IT, says Guinan, faculty director for the new program and an associate professor of math, science and management. It's also a speciality of Babson's School of Executive Education, which is ranked by Business Week as tops in the nation in teaching entrepreneurs. "These days, all large organisations have to be as fast and flexible as small companies, but it's even more important for folks in IT," she says. "These people are developing systems on Internet time. If they're going to be taken seriously by their business people, they have to know how to break down barriers and deliver under extreme pressure."

The CIOs of the five companies participating in the charter two-week consortium appreciate this approach. "Lucent is a large company, but there are a lot of businesses within Lucent where there is an opportunity to use entrepreneurial experience," says Joe Warfsman, Lucent's CIO and vice president of strategy, communications and knowledge management. He recommended Sherry Higgins and two other Lucent employees for the seminar. "Entrepreneurial companies can hit the market and move quickly, and it's that spirit that we want them to bring back," he says.

Mark Mooney, senior vice president and CTO at Houghton Mifflin, also sees the value in Babson's approach. "We are looking to change our culture to become less reactionary and to be able to compress the time it takes for us to do things," he says. "We're interested in a more entrepreneurial culture and Babson is known for that."

While the entrepreneurial thrust of Babson's IT consortium isn't particularly innovative, it fills a critical need in the executive education marketplace, says Thornton May, corporate futurist with Cambridge Technology Partners, a Cambridge, Mass., management consultancy and systems integrator. Companies in the top 25 percent of what the consultancy calls the New Economy--companies that are technology-enabled and reliant on a digital value chain--have already aligned IT with their business strategy throughout the enterprise, he observes, but the rest could benefit from a program like Babson's. "The geek/suit divide is disappearing fast, and it needs to disappear," he says. "A program like this is perfect for the remaining 75 percent of the marketplace that hasn't yet made that shift."

Full Days, Long Nights

One thing is certain, the program has a full schedule. Following a kickoff session attended by the CIO or CTO from each of the participating companies, the students buckled down to dissect and discuss topics such as: supply chains, strategic positioning, opportunity assessment and recognition, marketing strategy, the customer value proposition, organisational structure, emerging business models and e-commerce. A site visit to e-tailer Streamline.com, hands-on Web-based projects, nightly case studies and other readings were also on the docket.

"P.J. and I have more material ready for every class section than we can actually use. We see how fast people go, then try to push them," says Martin Anderson, codirector of Babson's Centre for Business in the Networked Economy and the second of three professors who handled the first week's classes. "This particular group gelled quickly and found common ground early on. We found we could speed things up and cover more ground."

After a three month hiatus following the first week to regroup, decompress and begin work on their business challenge projects, which are designed to mold what they've learned into real-world business solutions, students reconvene in mid-June for week two of the program. The second session covers change management, negotiation skills, strategic cost analyses and ways to create innovative products.

For the business challenge projects, the Lucent team of Sherry Higgins and Dave Kulpa are working on a proposal to redesign the order-management experience for one of Kulpa's biggest customers. Chris Hogg and his two colleagues from Houghton Mifflin are looking for a way to extend and modify the publisher's supply chain to accommodate alternate means of content delivery, such as e-books, print-on-demand textbooks and text-to-speech solutions. Mike Langlois and John Herrera of EMC are considering how to revamp the IS group to become more closely aligned with the customer. The CIOs are scheduled to return on the last day of the program. This time, their student teams will pitch the business challenge projects as they would in a boardroom setting.

Hear From Your Peers

Instead of parading a cast of experts before the group, nearly all of who have attended other executive education seminars, Guinan and the rest of the course-development team chose to limit the number of professors. They also limited the number of participating companies sending students. They were hoping to enable the professors to form personal relationships with every student and customise their teaching for the specific strategic requirements of each participant's organisation. Within this framework, the students became each other's experts.

"The participants do most of the talking," says Dave Kulpa, CIO of Optical Networking, a business-within-a-business at Lucent's North Andover, Mass., facility. "The professors would present an idea or break down a case study that we'd read the night before, but then it was us discussing what's going on in our businesses and playing off of each other's ideas." Some of those ideas came to Kulpa from Lucent colleague Sherry Higgins, whom he had never met. The two knew of each other's work, but came face-to-face for the first time at Babson. This was common among attendees from larger corporations.

Guinan and Anderson also speak of a second, emotional component that plays as crucial a role in the success of the program as the carefully developed curriculum. In pacing, sequencing and tailoring their material as specifically as possible to individuals' business requirements, the instructors strive to create what Guinan calls "stretch moments." Anderson calls these "leadership moments," but the meaning is the same. These are times when students make a cognitive leap and begin thinking outside the box to develop the kind of visionary ideas that make IT matter within their organisations. "There is an emotional map across the whole process. The goal is to create a very intense connection between the material and students' own experiences," Anderson says.

The giving atmosphere that Higgins and the other students so appreciated is part of that environment, according to Guinan. "As a professor, my goal is to build a stretching environment, but also a risk-free environment," she says. "I want to keep people on their toes, but they need to feel safe to say what they have to say."

Different Zoo, Same Animals

At first glance, it isn't obvious what IT managers from Lotus Development might have to share with their colleagues at Houghton Mifflin, the more than 150-year-old publishing concern. An old-line financial services company like MetLife might not seem to have much in common with computer memory hardware and software maker EMC Corp., but students and CIOs from these companies (which, along with Lucent, comprised the five companies attending this first program) say that when it comes to strategic alignment, all companies face the same pressures to identify opportunities, fulfil customer needs, manage the value chain and sustain a flexible, innovative corporate culture.

"We discovered that publishing and high-tech have some very similar problems," says Mike Langlois, director of client services at EMC in Hopkinton, Mass. "We came from totally different corporate perspectives in terms of age, culture and orientation, but it turns out that Houghton and EMC are facing the same kinds of issues."

"One thing I found out was that everybody else was just as bogged down in the mire," says Chris Hogg, only half kidding. Hogg, director of new Web/publishing technologies at Houghton Mifflin in Boston, says the frank and specific nature of the interaction and the case studies dissected by the class contributed equally to his own moments of breakthrough. "It was a chance to do some really good thinking about taking risks and reinventing your business without anyone saying, 'No, you can't do that,'" he says. "We were talking about delivering trash cans to Wal-Mart, and suddenly I was thinking, why can't [Houghton] print books to a Kinko's? It's the same principle, just a different business."

Those are exactly the kinds of connections that Houghton Mifflin's Mooney, Hogg's boss once removed, was hoping students would forge at the Babson program. "The exposure to other companies was really important for our people," he says. "We tend to be really insular, and we've been trying to expose ourselves more to external ideas and influences."

To Mooney's way of thinking, a visionary IT leader has three qualities: technical know-how, financial expertise to manage projects and programs, and relationship skills. "We have a lot of people who are very proficient technologically, but they need development in the relationship piece, in understanding customer service," he says.

"Technology today is an integrated business process," says Lucent's Warfsman. "I have a lot of high-performing managers with strong tech skills, but they haven't had exposure to the business value proposition and customer concerns. They need help transitioning tech issues to business issues."

Warfsman says he would have welcomed an opportunity to learn leadership skills when he was coming up through the ranks. "I picked those things up along the way, but I wish I had had a program [like Babson's] in the earlier part of my career."

Full Course Commitment

That may be one reason Warfsman made such an extraordinary effort to attend the program's kickoff dinner on a Sunday night last March. He flew up and back in the same night. "I was on a very tight schedule, and I know the other executives were struggling to take the time to be there," he recalls. "I wanted to send the message that I was committed. Everyone who spoke had the same message: Take advantage of this opportunity to learn, learn, learn. These chances don't come along very often in your career."

The CIO-level commitment to the program extends far beyond dinner. As part of Babson's consortium model for program development, technology officers from the five participating companies worked with Guinan and Babson's Director of Public and Partner Programs Stephen Flavin for months to develop and fine-tune the curriculum before the first student was ever enrolled.

The consortium model that Babson first used to create its 20-year-old entrepreneur seminar brings participating companies in as partners in executive education development at the onset, rather than creating a program in a vacuum and hoping it fits corporations' needs. "In our custom work and in our consortiums, we have a very applied, practical approach and bringing in the CIOs is part of that development process," says Associate Dean Robert Russman Halperin, director of Babson's School of Executive Education.

"We don't take a program off the shelf and put some company's name on it. We sit with the clients--in this case, the CIOs--and develop a program that teaches new ways of thinking about the business," Halperin says. For the IT consortium, charter companies were apprised of other organisations expressing interest to help ensure that direct competitors weren't enrolled simultaneously.

The advantages of such a business model are significant for Babson as well. The school knows that the program will be appealing because the participating companies helped develop it, seats are filled beforehand, and the school gets its capital before the first class. For the IT program, charter members (or "member companies") contributed at least $25,000, which entitled them to send three students to the two-week program.

At least one impetus to create the IT Leadership Program came from Lucent Technologies, which had previously worked with Babson and Guinan to develop a customised, in-house training course for Lucent employees. Lucent's IT Leadership Development Program proved so successful, the company wanted to try a broader, consortium-type program for higher-level employees interested in exposure to other companies facing similar levels of change, according to Lucent's Director of Continuous Learning, Elaine Smith.

The participating companies have made significant financial and time commitments to this program. While students, professors and CIOs all agree that the entrepreneurial skills being discussed aren't often measurable, there is at least one concrete focal point for the students and a demonstrable measure of value for the CIOs. The students can bring the business challenge projects, developed with their co-workers, back to their companies for practical application.

"We found that people are much more engaged when they have to wrestle with their own work challenges, rather than just studying someone else's case," Halperin says. "When the CIOs are involved, that gives students some political cover when they get back to the office and try to make it work."

"The class doesn't end when you leave Babson. They're tackling something that we're struggling with right now," says EMC's CIO Frank Hauck. He says the business challenge project is just one part of the overall experience that was specifically relevant to EMC. "If you look at the cases that they looked at, they're all very relevant. We were able to tailor this thing to get the greatest amount of interaction and discussion on current business problems."

Back In Action, Gracefully

Though Guinan and Anderson try their best to prevent re-entry crashes by keeping the topic in play during the week and discussing transitions beforehand with head executives, there's no denying it's tough to leave the thin air of entrepreneurial incubation and return home to a mountain of messages. With the exception of Lucent's Higgins, who scheduled a week of vacation following the seminar, attendees spoke of the huge volume of e-mail, voice mail and paper mail, as well as the daily crises of life near the top of the management food chain, that awaited them on their return.

Lucent's Dave Kulpa voiced one concern present in the back of nearly every student's mind--however valuable the business challenge projects may be, that work must still be wedged into days already crowded to the breaking point. "It's clear that we're all probably working more than full-time jobs, so trying to add this [project] is going to be a struggle," he says.

Projects aside, the students did find ways to start thinking differently right away. Hogg and the rest of the Houghton attendees did a presentation for CTO Mooney and his 10 direct reports. Hogg says he has sent "10 different e-mails to 10 different divisions" asking people to consider new methods of content delivery. At a meeting in Orlando following her vacation, Higgins was able to incorporate some new perspectives gained during the first session into a talk she gave to a group of her direct reports.

Kulpa is taking a philosophical approach to applying his entrepreneurial skills during the working day. "If I think strategically for even a half hour a day, that's enough to make a difference."

Have you recently ventured back into the classroom? Send your report cards to Features Editor Lafe Low at llow@cio.com. Freelance writer Tracy Mayor can be reached at tmayor@mediaone.net.

VALLEY HIGH: THOUGHT LEADERSHIP 101

From the centre of Silicon Valley Santa Clara University (SCU) has run a leadership program for senior IT professionals for three years now. That's a lifetime in technology terms. It's also a pretty good stretch by executive education standards.

Pete DeLisi, a veteran IT consultant who has run several seminars at SCU, heard repeatedly from executives at other seminars that leadership skills were a particular concern in IT. He gathered a few colleagues and conducted an informal survey of CEOs, asking what they felt their IT people needed. DeLisi and his group came back and hammered those requests into a curriculum tailored specifically for technology managers.

"There are a lot of places you can get those skills, but they tend to be generic. At the time, there really wasn't anybody offering a program specifically tailored to IT executives," says DeLisi, who is now academic dean of the Information Technology Leadership Program at SCU (lsb.scu.edu/edc/ppitlp.htm).

Though the goal is similar to Babson College's Entrepreneurial Leadership Development Program--to teach what DeLisi calls "soft skills" like relationship management, communications, marketing and strategic thinking--SCU takes a different approach. The seminar is significantly shorter (three days instead of two weeks), class sizes are slightly larger (25 maximum at Santa Clara) and professors' classroom presentations are supplemented with input from guest CIOs.

"We're going for a broad exposure," says DeLisi. "You get the real-world practical wisdom from CIOs, theoretical management-based learning from the faculty and best practices and skill exercises from the perspective of an industry consultant." DeLisi himself, who is also president of Organisational Synergies, is the industry consultant to whom he refers. CIOs who have participated in the program thus far include Mark Barmann, former executive vice president and CIO at Charles Schwab & Co. (retired); Dave Laube, CIO at US West; Tom Thomas, CIO at 3Com; Patricia Anderson, executive vice president at Lockheed Martin; and Bill Raduchel, chief strategy officer at Sun Microsystems Inc.

DeLisi was unaware of Babson's new program, but says he welcomes the news that other institutions are promoting the cause of IT leadership. "Our thinking when we started this program was that other schools in other parts of the country would catch on," he says. "There's a real need out there that we're trying to fill."

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