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Looking for Leaders

Looking for Leaders

Grooming future leaders isn't easy. CIOs must be prepared to both change and make changes.

"If there were enough leaders born, then we wouldn't have to make them," says Susan Cramm, founder and president of IT executive coaching service Valuedance and regular commentator on all things leadership. Making leaders in a systematic way is what many organizations are now trying to achieve.

Once upon a time, leaders would just "rise to the surface", apparently through some almost mystical process that revealed their innate capabilities. Often this was leadership developed under a trial by fire. But such quasi-military thinking is giving way to more formal procedures that try to tap the often ephemeral nature of "leadership".

Can you bottle leadership? How intangible are its characteristics, and are leaders born or can they be created? What are the essential attributes of a leader and where will those attributes take such blessed people? Most importantly, can you be one, and will a CIO ever get to lead the organization?

Particularly in the Australian public sector, there are facilities and processes specifically established to develop current leaders and identify and sponsor future leaders. But those grooming the potential future leaders say it is never easy, it requires much effort, and demands they be prepared both to change and to make changes.

All About Change

According to Cramm, leadership fundamentally equates to a "change-oriented position". Management is a status quo operation, she asserts, while leadership is all about change.

Cramm suggests leaders need to understand the motivation to change by analyzing their current situation, their abilities (how they see themselves) and perceptions (how others see them), as well as where they would like to be, their goals and values, and their success factors.

"The motivating gap is an important difference between where you are and where you would like to be," which means would-be leaders need to assess why they want to change and what experiences will help, and then produce a development objective and plan. While Cramm believes trial by fire is no way to develop leaders, she says development is accelerated through "powerful planned experiences", which include early hands-on periods, first supervisions, start-ups, turnarounds, changes in scope, playing a role on task forces, and gaining a bird's eye view on IT's relationship with the business by involvement in compliance and planning as much as delivering services.

Circumstances and environment also play a role in leadership development. Andrew Rowsell-Jones, vice-president and research director of Gartner's Executive Programs, says there are two types of CIOs: those who keep the lights on, and those for whom there is a much bigger picture (and who garner most of the publicity). He says which type one is depends on the reliance and importance IT has in the organization.

But he agrees with Cramm that "the more interesting roles are about changing people's behaviour".

It is not all learned experience though. There must be some attributes - some element of nature as much as nurture - upon which to build.

Christine Flynn, group manager of the Australian Public Service's Leadership Learning & Development Group, which runs the recently established whole-of-government Integrated Leadership System (ILS), says candidates should show a combination of skills, comprising technical skills and managerial skills (which includes financial, project, people and communications), as well as the ephemeral leadership qualities.

"The balance will change depending on the seniority," she says, tilting towards leadership and away from technical the higher up you go (or wish to go). "You still need technical credibility; you can't just be a charismatic leader.

"We're moving from just talking about leadership to putting it into practice," she adds.

Each individual expresses their skills in different ways, Flynn says. These include an understanding of the business, a strong values base, the ability to communicate across the organization, technical credibility and a willingness to learn.

On this last point, she says leaders need to appreciate that at no stage in their careers has their development stopped; as they institute change in others, so they too must acknowledge their own need to learn and change.

On the shop floor, Jane Treadwell, CIO of Centrelink, says that any organization that has a future has to be on the ball and leading in change management, accommodating change and responsiveness and resilience of organizations - "That's core and common".

Treadwell's colleague, Ann Steward, general manager of Enterprise Capability in Centrelink, says that in addition to the five core clusters of the APS's Senior Executive Leadership Capability (SELC) framework (see sidebar "Attributes of a Leader - One"), Centrelink requires that leaders and potential leaders demonstrate two further characteristics - upholding Centrelink shared behaviours and building Centrelink's knowledge and information capabilities.

Treadwell adds that the last one, given that Centrelink is a very deep user of technology and relies substantially on its information capabilities, "is particularly important for executives as well as people covering IT".

Both Centrelink executives have been through a range of leadership training activities. "It's always important in fairly intense executive positions that you get the chance to reflect on how you perform and how you interact with others. Particularly off-site," Treadwell says.

She found the SELC program particularly useful as it "confirmed some of the broader strategy development ideas that I had come across". This course was carried out in groups of 20-25 people, which added value in sharing and debating the concepts that had been introduced.

"The other part of this course is a fairly demanding, 360-degree feedback session that is presented to you at the end of the course. There we have the chance to consider what's personally effective in leadership and style, and how we might individually improve in certain areas."

Steward says what she looks for in others is to have a strategic view rather than just knowing what's happening on the ground on the day. "And that's both within an organization and across your environment.

"In the public sector I think it's absolutely crucial to be able to advance the very challenging change regime we work with. Perseverance is important and it's [also] knowing when to give ground on particular issues but not lose sight of the need to constantly go forward - often quite a delicate balancing process. The networking ability [is also important], not just within specialist disciplines.

"But for me in a lot of ways it's about my responsibilities as a leader - the need to create the environment for the team and the new leaders of the future to be able to grow and develop their skill sets; it's really around succession," Steward says.

Everyone that CIO Government spoke to for this article agreed that leadership in the public sector was potentially more difficult than a similar private sector role because of the demand for greater transparency, public accountability, more varied stakeholders, differing agendas (service versus profit) and a philosophy of cooperation between agencies rather than competition.

Rowsell-Jones says that one thing leadership is not, is insisting you are a leader. Quoting Margaret Thatcher's edict that powerful people do not need to tell everyone they are powerful, he suggests that: "The more you say you're a good leader, the more sceptical people will be." Not to mention the more diligent they will be in seeking out your inadequacies.

Leaders of Tomorrow

When Steward refers to succession plans, she can readily point to a range of measures whereby future leaders can be discovered and mentored.

The Integrated Leadership System was launched in July 2004 in response to what the then Minster for Employment and Workplace Relations, Kevin Andrews, described as "a changing of the guard" in the APS over the next five years brought on by a generational change in management - the end of the baby-boomer era.

"The APS needs to give more attention to workforce planning and succession management to ensure it retains a strong and capable leadership cadre," he said.

From a whole-of-government, cross-agency viewpoint, the ILS has guides and tools to support professional development, career planning and agency bench strength or succession management. These include a set of key elements or guidelines for those who must seek out candidates, covering:

• understanding the capabilities required of APS leaders

• developing a systemic approach to capability development

• common descriptions of how executive and senior executive roles change in response to increasing complexity

• behavioural indicators for the increase in role complexity

• capability development partnerships.

Within agencies, there are specific processes to promote future leaders.

"In Centrelink over the last few years we've moved to a much more prominent [and formal] approach to succession planning," Treadwell says, "whereas in the past it might have been inviting the senior executives to nominate their successors."

Steward says that in her area, which has as its role understanding and identifying the agency's capabilities and underlying systems, processes and assets, including people, the requirement is "to look for the bright young things who really want to have opportunities to try different things". This involves identifying their skill profiles, assisting them in gaining the additional training and skills that they need to take the next step, giving them opportunities to go beyond their comfort zone but at the same time having a "life-raft" available for them.

"It's a tutoring role. There's self-selection but we also keep an eye out for opportunities to be able to bring people forward," Steward says.

When individuals prove reluctant to put themselves forward they can be exposed to the limelight either through working groups outside their normal day-to-day activities or else by being given a particular project to undertake where they will have to be identified for the outcome on a given time frame and budget, and so on.

Rowsell-Jones throws in a word of caution to those who believe anyone can be trained up to leadership. "Training will [only] hone leadership skills, it won't create them ... If you lack certain qualities, no amount of training will make you a good leader.

"Games development might be good for the Jolt-drinking 20-year-old, but by the time you get to 30 or older then you start looking for broader satisfactions."

A technical geek might evolve into a good people manager, he says, but they need to be aware that while an IT manager's role is 90 percent technical and 10 percent politics, for a CIO who reports to the board, the reverse is the case.

Prospects for the Top Job

Of course, leadership extends beyond the confines of the IT department. The change from geek to IT leader is one transition; the move to CEO and organizational leader is totally another.

So what are the prospects for IT executives taking their leadership skills further and higher in the organization? Rowsell-Jones is not optimistic. There are "vanishingly few" CIOs who become CEOs, he says. "We thought of doing a study on it, but found there were so few it wasn't worthwhile."

In contrast, Flynn believes there is nothing to say an IT manager could not be a departmental general manager or secretary. "It's not a closed shop." Certainly the ILS, with a whole-of-government philosophy, is not only about progressing leaders between agencies but also about taking them out of their technical niches and developing more wide-ranging skills.

Steward agrees. "I think that the people who have reached the executive ranks at Centrelink and the APS show strong competence within those generalist capabilities, especially communications, results-orientation and chasing strategic capabilities within organizations. There should be no reason why they can't be CEOs or departmental secretaries."

That is not to say it works the other way. While Treadwell says that, at the more senior level, executives "come from anywhere", she admits that "it would be a brave person who had a leadership group running one of the large IT shops in Australia without any IT background".

Ultimately, and despite the best filtering and spotlighting procedures in the world, to reach leadership positions both within the IT community and the broader organization, it is up to individuals to put themselves forward. And for IT people, this can mean breaking down some long-held preconceptions.

"As much as one tries," says Treadwell, "for those who don't know about the changing nature of IT and what it means in organizations, you can quickly get boxed into a view that all you know about is MIPS, bits, bytes and a whole lot of three-letter acronyms. I think it's up to the CIOs and the people in the IT area to demonstrate values beyond that fairly technical operational base."

A simple thought for a complex procedure. But like all leadership issues, it puts the ball firmly in your court.

Attributes of a Leader - I

According to the Australian Public Service's Senior Executive Leadership Capability (SELC) framework, senior managers must demonstrate qualities that cover the following five clusters:

  • shapes strategic thinking

  • achieves results

  • cultivates productive working relationships

  • exemplifies personal drive and integrity

  • communicates with influence.

The APS's Integrated Leadership System (ILS) requires capabilities from all five of the clusters, with a strong focus on the first three for its leadership component:

Shapes strategic thinking

  • inspires a sense of purpose and direction (leaders demonstrate and develop vision and strategic direction for the branch/organization)

  • focuses strategically (leaders understand the organization's role within government and society, including the whole of government agenda).

Achieves results

ensures closure and delivers on intended results (leaders strive to achieve, and encourage others to do the same).

Cultivates productive working relationships

  • values individual differences and diversity (leaders capitalize on the positive benefits that can be gained from diversity and harness different viewpoints)

  • guides, mentors and develops people (leaders offer support in times of high pressure and engage in activities to maintain morale).

Attributes of a Leader - II

According to the US-based Center for Leadership Solutions, research has indicated that IT leaders demonstrate the following positive competencies.

Building a great team

  • character (acts consistently, states opinions honestly, makes decisions based on organizational benefit rather than personal gain)

  • influence/persuasion (shares information, builds support, captures interest, anticipates opposition, gets commitment from others - not just agreement)

  • passion for the job (creates energy for others through own enthusiasm, is fun to be around)

  • team builder (actively solicits feedback, fosters a free flow of information, communicates a team vision, celebrates team successes in a dramatic way, recruits and hires the right talent to build the team, deals effectively with poor performers).

Getting the lie of the land

  • pattern recognition (spots problems, opportunities and trends early, asks questions to get at underlying problems, is quick to get necessary information)

  • street smarts (knows how to accomplish objectives that require cooperation from other parts of organization, reads people and situations, knows how to get things done without creating enemies or negative side effects)

  • technical savvy (translates complex technical issues into actionable discussions, recognizes important relationships between different technologies, recognizes authoritative sources within the organization, provides thought leadership).

Having an impact

  • business partner (makes decisions based on whole of organization's needs, including financial, economic, market and organizational data, and creates solutions based on customer or business needs)

  • impact (provides definite sense of direction and purpose, has confidence in themselves and setting direction, does not hesitate to act)

  • resilient (finds creative/innovative ways to overcome barriers, keeps own work moving forward, works smarter not just harder).

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