Get your head out of IT (at least once per day)

Want to be a successful IT leader? Resist the urge to use all your intellectual firepower on your narrow technical expertise.

There's an interesting paradox with corporate IT. We generally have one of the most knowledge-intensive corporation functions, yet we're perceived as being the most narrow-minded. We also tend to have the highest spend on external advice, be it from "consultants," implementation partners, or specialized training, but I would argue that we use this advice the least effectively. To a large extent, much of what we spend our money and intellectual firepower on is narrow technical expertise. We'll bring on an expert in some esoteric aspect of a massive ERP system without a second thought, yet we are loathe to spend a comparatively tiny amount on group leadership training or "soft" advice on how to improve the way our IT organizations function. In the spirit of remedying this state of affairs, I offer the following suggestions:

Like many professions, there seems to be a constant drive to specialize in IT, gaining reams of knowledge about a very narrow aspect of one's profession. I've always been an advocate of the opposite approach, contending that if you hone your ability to learn and be flexible and have a working knowledge of a breadth of areas, you will never be without employment, versus the "expert" whose area of expertise might become obsolete overnight.

To that effect, put aside the specialist IT publications and Web sites at least once a day and read some quality general-knowledge publication. While the local sporting news doesn't qualify, I am personally partial to the Wall Street Journal, as it covers a wide range of business, political, and human interest topics and lets you gain industry and competitive knowledge. Your peers in other management positions are probably reading it, and being able to speak intelligently about an article you saw "in the Journal" will serve as a far better conversation starter than the latest SAP release notes. It is available in online form for less than the cost of the latest smartphone.

Training need not be tech-only

IT is a bastion of specialist training, and a stroll down the cubicle village of most IT shops will find fancy certificates adorning most cubes, endorsed by an alphabet soup of vendors and certifying organizations. While this training is usually relevant and often directly applicable to a technical challenge at hand, don't neglect "soft" training, from leadership to meeting management to organization and task management. While a two-day session on time management might not give anyone any new technical ideas, allowing people to manage their time more effectively could have even more dramatic results. Since most of these types of classes have become commoditized, there is likely a local trainer available who can do a very cost-effective group session for your team. Ask other line management or HR if they have someone they would recommend.

You can also avoid formal training as a whole and implement free or low-cost staff development tools. Allow employees unstructured "research" time (that would likely be lost to idle Web browsing anyway) and have employees present their findings on a new technology or device. At the worst case you'll build morale, independent research and presentation skills, and might even get some leads on a new area or technology to pursue.

Hire the occasional "true" consultant

Here's the shocking part of our story where the consultant tells you it's a good idea to hire a consultant, so fasten your safety belt. In all seriousness, many CIOs will quickly point to the raft of external people circulating through their departments, but if you look closely, most are implementation support rather than true consulting help. Sure, many are highly paid and very specialized, but they are there to solve a specific technical problem, augment your staff, or implement a specialized hardware or software product. Rarely does IT hire true business and managerial consultants who will help answer the "big picture" questions on how your IT organization relates to the rest of the business, how it could be structured more effectively, how to motivate and retain your staff, or whether that struggling project should be cancelled or doubled-down. For some reason, many in high-level IT leadership positions feel they are admitting weakness when contemplating consulting help on personal or leadership development, but rest assured your C-Suite peers are actively and effectively using just this type of advice.

While many vendors claim to provide these services, too often it is a thin veneer for selling implementation services or a half-hearted "freebie" in the hopes of selling a more lucrative technical solution. For this type of advice, ensure you bring in consultants who are not beholden to a particular vendor and are not in the primary business of selling implementations. Again, ask peers in other business units for advice on consultants who helped them solve a particularly thorny organizational issue or provided a compelling insight. Failing that, I just might know someone...

Get out and play

Most of us have heard the stories of the executives at some of the large American auto makers. They would make prearranged visits to a test track and be given "ringers" by the engineering staff that had been carefully tweaked and prepared. These nearly handmade cars were obviously exceptional, and these execs were shocked to find their products had widespread quality control problems. While the use of specially prepared cars is obviously questionable, one can't help but wonder why these executives never visited a local dealer and went for a test drive.

Without question, if you are in management or aspiring to be, you should be familiar with your company's products. Interact with the product through its primary distribution channel: Visit a reseller, call your helpdesk, or visit the factory, field operations, and call centers. If possible, spend a day working on the front lines and mandate that your staff do the same. It is nearly inexcusable not to understand more about your company than the glossy brochure or Web site convey.

While these suggestions may not solve that burning technical issue that is staring you in the face, they will develop you as a leader and problem solver in the long run and are arguably worth far more than the latest drivel on virtualized SaaS clouds.