Early Lessons in IT Leadership

FRAMINGHAM (03/10/2000) - Four new IT leaders share what they've learned in their roles. The bottom line? They love what they're doing, in spite of how tough it can be.

IT's harder than they expected - too many people to deal with, too many projects and too little work being accomplished. That's a common litany voiced by information technology professionals who have recently moved into leadership positions.

Despite these complaints, four fledgling IT leaders interviewed by Computerworld are succeeding in their new roles. The unifying theme, and a key to their success, is a love for their work. "I'm having a great time," says one.

Dan Tesenair "Since I've been in this position, I feel like I've never worked so hard in my life and gotten so little personally accomplished," says Tesenair, coordinator of corporate systems at Health First Inc. in Rockledge, Fla.

But, he explains, his accomplishments at the health care organization are measured against the yardstick of his team's achievements. "What's changed my mind-set," says the former network engineer, "is getting things accomplished through other people. I didn't expect it to be as difficult."

Tesenair says a major part of his job is to constantly juggle and adjust the priorities of his 10-person team. "There are certain services our management or board wants us to provide," he explains. "They're reading magazines and want to get cool things out to our customers. But there are certain back-end things we know we need to get accomplished just to keep the network healthy. It is a triage process."

In addition to doing the triage, Tesenair says a key part of his job is "removing the roadblocks"that hamper his team's progress.

Strong technical skills and an ability to communicate well were factors in Steve Shim's choice of Tesenair for the management position he has held for six months. Shim, director of technical services and Tesenair's boss, says, "The other thing was his motivation. Dan enjoys what he does, and his motivation is infectious, to say the least."

Tesenair advises IT professionals moving from technical to management positions to let go of old work habits. "As a technical leader, if there was a problem with a system, my first response was to scoot them out of the way and sit down at the terminal and fix it myself," he says. "Now, as a manger, it's difficult to take the time to do that, and I want to show folks that I trust them to do things on their own."

Laura Olle Recently appointed co-CIO at Capital One Financial Corp. in Falls Church, Va. [News, Feb. 28], Olle has three pieces of advice for IT professionals stepping into new leadership positions: "Listen, listen and listen some more."

Olle says she likes to get out of her office to visit her colleagues and staff, so she's finding it difficult to manage people remotely. "I'm a big interpersonal person, and I have to learn how to manage when people are in Boise and Seattle and the U.K.," she says.

Olle, who was hired in October as a senior business information officer - a new position at Capital One - from a senior IT post at McLean, Va.-based mortgage firm Freddie Mac, led 600 development people among a total IT staff of 1,700 before her recent promotion. "Systems development was a bunch of silos, and no one was looking across the silos for reusability, best practices, sharing of staff, sharing of tools and so forth," she says.

Leadership is pulling together the silos and "seeing where we can share things across the organization," says Olle, who spends about half of her time with IT people and half with the credit-card company's senior business managers. "I am trying to move from a customer relationship to a true partnership," she says.

"Laura is my partner and my primary interface back into the IT organization," says Marge Connelly, the other co-CIO at Capital One and the former senior vice president for domestic card operations. "We share some common accountabilities for the success of our business - for growth and profitability."

Connelly says Olle is "extremely open and collaborative with me. She's a very energetic person and has a highly passionate presence. And she has a way of cutting through the clutter and getting directly to the point."

As for occasional disagreements between the IT and business people, Olle says it's her job as a leader to help resolve them. "I think a certain amount of conflict between the two groups is good, as long as you put it on the table and talk about it," she says.

Olle also advises leadership newbies to be humble. "It's dangerous to walk into an organization and assume you know the answers," she says. But remember to "have fun," she adds. "Part of leadership is having a passion for what you're doing."

Tim Bosco can be called an IT leader even though he's not an IT professional.

He's a controller assigned to the IT organization at Nationwide Life Insurance Co. in Columbus, Ohio. He says he lives in a "matrix" world, reporting to Nationwide's corporate controller and to its CIO.

Bosco was promoted to his post - a new one at Nationwide - from a financial analyst position in IT a little more than a year ago. His job is to help 40 to 50 IT managers understand and deal with the financial aspects of their jobs.

"They look to me for financial leadership. They expect me to understand what they're doing and advise them on the treatment of costs, how they can secure funding and things like that," he says.

Bosco's leadership becomes critical twice a year when management calls on IT to defend its financial performance and justify new funding requests. "I'm the financial representative in those meetings, and what we're looking for [are] creative ways to fund projects," he says.

According to Bosco, the cornerstone of his accomplishments so far has been to bring order out of chaos in IT accounting. "When I first started at the company, IT expenditures were inconsistently accounted for," he says. "People knew the company spent large amounts on IT but didn't really understand how much or what value they were getting from that investment."

As a result, Bosco developed IT accounting methodologies and benchmarks to compare new projects with past projects and those of competitors.

"What Tim was able to do in a very short time was to gather all the technology expenses and create what I call ‘technology statements,' which basically tell us what each business unit is spending on technology," says Nationwide's CIO, George McKinnon. "Now we can start to make better decisions about how to allocate these dollars."

Asked if the technology statements detail benefits as well as costs, McKinnon laughs. "In many cases, it's lack of benefits," he says. "Now we can highlight where we're spending big dollars and ask, ‘Is this really an investment that will differentiate us in the market?'"Of his new job, Bosco says, "I didn't really anticipate that I'd encounter so much direct interaction with such a wide variety of people. It's made me make major changes in time management. I have to be more careful about what I take on."

Karin Hempel In December, Hempel was promoted to vice president of Internet trading development at Charles Schwab & Co. It was her third promotion in three years at the brokerage. Now, she says, she's in a position that in some ways gets too much respect. "When you get to be a vice president, it seems like a lot of people look at you differently," Hempel explains. "When I say something, all of a sudden it's, ‘Oh, she's got the answer,' when I don't."

She has to be more careful now, she says. "Part of my learning is trying to recognize the role I play and understanding that I still want to encourage people to come into my office and yell at me if they want to," she says.

Hempel encourages an open-door policy, gets out to meet new employees and takes her employees to lunch. "I want people to see me as a person and talk to me off-site so they'll be more likely to talk to me on-site," she says.

Hempel says she worries that she comes across as "opinionated" at times. But Vincent Phillips, senior vice president of active investor technology at San Francisco-based Schwab, says that's not a problem. "She's really good at not coming across as in-your-face, but still being able to hold her ground," says Phillips.

Hempel says pulling back from day-to-day details in order to set strategic direction for her 20-person group has been harder than she expected. "I'm used to understanding all the components at a tactical level, and I find I have to distance myself, but then I feel like I'm too far away," she says.

But hiring two good people to support her helped her pull away from the details. "If you bring in smart people to [help you] do your job, you are able to go and do something else," she says.

Hempel also turns to her boss for guidance. "When you make a leap [into senior management], you're really expected to do more influencing, and that's a whole different thing from day-to-day delivery," she says. "So having a mentor who has the contacts and knows the political battleground can be a big help."

Five Habits of New IT Leaders:

Realize that your performance will be measured by the accomplishments of others.

Concentrate on removing roadblocks from the paths of your subordinates.

Listen, listen and listen.

Don't assume you know all the answers.

Have fun.

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