How to Launch a Leader

How to Launch a Leader

Instil leadership skills and business sense in your IT employees - and watch them soar.

Reader ROI

  • Why companies tend to skimp on leadership training for IT staff
  • What a few pioneering CIOs have done to encourage leadership skills development
  • what IT staffers have learned from their leadership training

At ING US 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 per cent 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, recognise that growing and moulding future IT executives is critical to the long-term success of their organisations.

These companies teach their IT staffs communication skills, help them understand the business and instil 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 nappies, relatively speaking. "The issue starts with how companies perceive their IT organisations," 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.

In a 10-person IT department, that may not matter. In a 100- or 1000-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 lid on spending will come off and more projects will get the green light. 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.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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