CXO

Leadership classes can strengthen skills before and after a promotion

Whether you're trying to get promoted or you've just landed in a high-level management role, experts say it's never too late to bone up on leadership skills. One way is taking group courses--an approach that has worked well for other CIOs.


Congratulations—you’ve just been promoted. Now for the bad news: You've probably been selected for the CIO role based on your ability to implement technology and run a department. Those are very likely your strongest skill sets, yet those tactical skills will now take a back seat to leadership skills.

An example is the ability to influence others and rally the troops—a skill that you can’t just read about and learn. While new leaders do learn some skills on the job, experts advise future and current CIOs to get basic leadership training before landing a promotion, or soon after.

That’s why more IT executives are attending leadership schools around the country, and more organizations are developing leadership programs specifically for CIOs and CTOs, according to Jim Kouzes, a leadership consultant, author, and educator in San Jose, CA.

When it comes to leadership education, you have numerous options: daylong seminars; weeklong, off-site courses at universities or private schools; certificate programs; consultants who visit your company to work with teams; and leadership coaches who work one-on-one with clients. For the sake of space, I'll focus on group leadership education.

It’s never too late
In 2000, as the new CIO at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Jeannie Winston decided she needed a refresher course in IT management. She had spent the prior five years in the legal field and felt her IT management skills had become rusty.

She enrolled in a CIO certificate program at Carnegie Mellon University, the CIO Institute, which covers a broad spectrum of senior IT issues, including knowledge management, e-commerce, security, and leadership. The four-year-old program was designed for federal IT managers but attracts equal numbers of private sector CIOs and their seconds-in-command.

For 14 months during 2001 and 2002, Winston traveled to attend four-day courses in Arlington, VA—a grueling schedule on top of an already demanding job. While the commute was tough, as was juggling her day job around the courses, it was well worth it, said Winston. The CIO was able to share ideas with other CIOs, assess her own strengths and weaknesses, and participate in role-playing activities. All of this helped her navigate difficult cultural challenges at the university, including transitioning from an open-network academic environment to one that required more security.

Unlike technical skills, leadership concepts—including conflict resolution and the understanding of human motivations—are best learned interactively, Winston discovered. "Leadership is more of an art than a science," she said. "You have to work harder to get in tune with those soft skills."

Bill Ferguson, director of the CIO Institute and a former CIO, said participant feedback indicates that IT execs like the blend of academics and experiential learning that Carnegie Mellon offers. What CIOs most desire from such courses, he added, is the ability to immediately put the skills they learn into practice back at work.

Another critical take-away from the learning effort is networking. "It's just as important for IT types as other executives," Ferguson said. Broader responsibilities in business and strategy require next-generation CIOs to be human relations experts. "There is an interest in maintaining and developing these executive skill sets."

Choosing a program
Experts say leadership schools and other forms of group education are best suited for middle to senior managers who need a broad overview of the fundamentals. Executive coaching, on the other hand, is a better fit for senior-level executives who have specific behavioral issues or who can't take the time to attend an outside course, explained Dan Woodward, a former technology executive at IBM, EDS, and various startups.

Woodward sent many tech executives to leadership courses, and his favorite schools include the University of Michigan, Rice University, and INSEAD (Paris, France). He's a big fan of the university approach because of the need to get away from the narrow-minded "culture of arrogance" he saw at large companies with their own internal universities.

"What I like about external programs is that it creates an environment for networking," the Houston retiree said. "You really need to share experiences with people you don't work with." Woodward does not believe that CIOs need to choose a tech-oriented program, unless they are at the helm of a technology company, because of the intrinsic cultural differences between tech and nontech companies.

The most important factors, in his view, are matching the culture of the school to the culture of your company and making sure that the instructors have real-world experience. He also advises potential students to find out who the school’s clients are, what kinds of leadership problems the courses address, and how diverse the participants are in terms of job responsibility and industry (the more diverse, the better).

Here are a few programs to check out online:

The ROI
Typically, courses at the university level revolve around a famous author or leadership expert, such as Santa Clara University's Barry Posner, coauthor with Jim Kouzes of the popular book The Leadership Challenge.

Beyond that, Santa Clara's IT leadership program follows a common model: The course, a three-day exploration of effective communications skills, teaches you how to think like a general manager, influence others, develop strategy, relate to others, understand business needs, and evaluate thinking/personality styles, according to Pete DeLisi, the program’s director.

The topics are discussed and learned in the context of readings from the course textbook, role-playing/simulation exercises that allow people to practice leadership skills, and often a leadership skill inventory of each participant—typically, 360-degree surveys or similar assessment tools. The tough part is bringing that education back to the workplace. "The reality of it is a large percentage of knowledge decays after the class," DeLisi said. For this reason, he added, schools are focusing on skill development rather than knowledge acquisition.

Bringing lessons home
After employees complete leadership training, companies must hold them accountable for results. That makes good fiscal sense, given the luxury-vacation price tag that leadership schools can have. Sending a CIO to one course will cost upwards of $7,000, including travel, Woodward noted.

Typically, a company will set expectations and develop a plan to make sure that your lessons are shared with your IT managers and team, and that your commitments to making improvements are kept, Woodward said. As a former CEO, Woodward said he often had to "get on people's backs" about those commitments.

An easier way to integrate leadership concepts into the workplace is to bring an educator into the company to work with the team directly. This approach works well for improving team-building and collaboration skills, said Kouzes, who provides such customized programs, but not so well if you’re looking for cross-industry networking and exposure to multiple faculty members.

Evaluating the value
When it's all said and done, does leadership school really develop leaders? Yes and no. Former participants have told Ferguson that the CIO Institute has provided an excellent foundation for becoming a CIO. Winston said she found enormous value in the Institute's emphasis on understanding how others think and act, depending on their unique personality style. This education in human nature has helped her resolve problems with coworkers more quickly.

But taking a leadership course is no rocket launcher to the corner office. When faced with daily leadership struggles, Winston draws on all of her past lives, she explained. As a professional executive who's had three careers and is working on her third advanced degree, her real-life experiences are lessons you can’t learn in any classroom.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox