Quiet techies can be groomed to be leaders

What it takes to run an IT group

Not all leadership qualities are ingrained at birth. You can learn some of them. But it helps if you want to lead and are willing to listen.

What it takes to run an IT group was the topic of a lively discussion here last month at a meeting of a chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

Panelist and management consultant Bart Bolton said he isn't convinced that a person needs charisma to be an effective IT leader. He believes introverted technologists with the right qualities can be groomed to lead. "I know a lot of introverts who have become successful CIOs," said Bolton.

A mix of attributes

Potential IT leaders "have to develop a sense of who you are and what you're about," and that leads to a sense of self-confidence, he said.

Effective IT leaders draw upon other qualities as well, including the ability to set and communicate a vision for the IT organization, a capacity to market and sell that vision to IT staffers and business executives, "and the charisma to motivate," said Tom Petti­bone, co-founder and managing partner at management consultancy Transition Partners, and a former CIO at Philip Morris USA and New York Life Insurance.

Those types of leadership qualities, said Pettibone, are "something that's in the internal DNA" of a person.

A good leader, Pettibone added, inspires people, demonstrates success, shows the way and advances the careers of those who work for him.

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

The SIM panel also debated whether it's best to tap the IT ranks for a CIO or bring in a business executive for the job.

The latter approach can be risky, said Ron Rose, CIO at Priceline.com in Connecticut, U.S. "For a lot of companies, the technology has to deliver and deliver quickly," he said.

Time-to-market pressures have made the margin for technology-related errors smaller, and business-people-turned-CIOs "will have to become more technology savvy" to keep pace, Rose said.

Bolton added that either approach can produce challenges for a company. If an IT veteran is tapped to become a CIO, he has to be able to talk to business executives in business terms, said Bolton. Also, business people who transition into CIOs run the risk of not fully understanding technical issues.

For his part, Pettibone believes that the ideal CIO candidate comes from the IT ranks. "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.

Regardless of a CIO's roots, Rose said, he "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."

Rose also emphasized the importance of listening. Ten years ago, when Rose was chief technology officer at Standard & Poor's Retail Markets, an engineer told him about a discovery he had made with a then little-known operating system called Linux. "He said, 'You've got to check this thing out; it's amazing,' and I'm thinking, 'Like I have time for this,'" said Rose.

But check it out he did -- and S&P became one of the first financial services firms to adopt the open-source system. "It reflects how some of the best ideas come from the bottom up," said Rose.

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