IT leaders are made, not born, say tech veterans

Finding a bit of natural charm and building on it is the way to groom a top IT executive, some say

As a long-time IT management consultant and a facilitator of the US Society for Information Management (SIM) Regional Leadership Forum since 1994, Bart Bolton knows a thing or two about the qualities that go to make an IT leader.

Bolton isn’t convinced that a person needs charisma to be an effective IT leader and believes that some introverted technologists with the right qualities can be groomed for leadership.

“I know a lot of introverts who have become successful CIOs,” says Bolton, who participated in a recent IT leadership panel discussion held by SIM. Potential IT leaders “have to develop a sense of self-awareness of who you are and who you’re about that leads to a sense of self-confidence,” he said at the event.

To be a leader, “you have to know what your own style is and what works for you. And you have to find people whom you can develop who are able to find their own leadership style,” Bolton told the audience.

Effective IT leaders draw upon other qualities, of course, including the ability to set and communicate a vision for the IT organisation, and a capacity to market and sell that vision to IT staffers and business executives. “The charisma to motivate”, is also important, said Tom Pettibone, a former CIO at Philip Morris USA and the New York Life Insurance Company.

Those types of leadership qualities, said Pettibone, are “something that’s in the internal DNA” of a person. “You have to find people with a little bit of that DNA and build on top of that.”

A good leader, said Pettibone, is someone who inspires people, demonstrates success, shows the way and advances the careers of the people who work for them.

Still, Pettibone warns that it’s not always a good idea to try to groom someone who might be a skilled manager or technologist but who doesn’t necessarily want to become a leader. “To try to get them to do that [lead] is like root canal,” he said.

The SIM panel also debated whether and when it makes sense to tap the IT ranks for a CIO or bring in a business executive for the job. There can be risks with the latter approach, said Ron Rose, CIO at Priceline.com.

“For a lot of companies, the technology has to deliver and deliver quickly,” said Rose. Time-to-market pressures have made the margin for technology-related errors smaller and businessmen-turned-CIOs “will have to become more technology-savvy” to keep pace.

There can be challenges with both approaches. If an IT veteran is tapped to become a CIO, he or she has to be able to talk to business executives in business terms, said Bolton. As for business people who become CIOs, organisations run the risk of having someone at the executive level who doesn’t fully understand all of the technical issues involved, he said.

“You need someone in-between,” said Bolton.

For his part, Pettibone believes the ideal CIO candidate is someone who rises up through the IT ranks and hasn’t been transferred from another functional area. “I used to joke with the general counsel at New York Life that if they wanted to make him the CIO they should make me the general counsel,” said Pettibone.

(Editor’s note: Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe first joined the airline as CIO in 2003, before moving on to other roles. He had come from a business background, not an IT one, when he took up the CIO role).

Regardless of a CIO’s roots, the individual “has to almost be a better business person than the business people because you have so much less time to figure out the challenges for each of those business silos,” said Rose.

To engender hope in an IT organisation, CIOs need several good qualities, including the ability to build relationships and to listen carefully, said Bolton. “Communication is more about listening than it is about speaking.”

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