Tailoring Leadership Strategies

FRAMINGHAM (07/24/2000) - Sears, Roebuck & Co. CIO Jerry Miller, 53, is a 20-year IT veteran who has worked at the venerable retailer for the past six years, taking over as CIO a year and a half ago.

As a football player in college, Jerry Miller learned some basic leadership skills that he says have served as a solid foundation throughout his 20-year career in information technology.

Now, as senior vice president and CIO at Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sears, Roebuck & Co., Miller is responsible for the professional growth of the company's 1,700 IT employees.

In a recent interview with Computerworld's Melissa Solomon, Miller talked about some of his strategies and practices for recognizing, encouraging and developing new leaders within Sears and discussed the key ingredients of leadership training.

CW: How critical are leadership-development programs in IT?

Miller: It's absolutely vital to the success of any IT organization to make sure that you train your people . . . and you have a good pipeline of talent coming up through the ranks.

CW: Do you have any examples of a leadership development course that really paid off?

Miller: We sent people to [the College of] William and Mary, and that course was about . . . five or six days . . . and it really taught the people how to win in retail. We had another, a similar course [at Northwestern University], and it was on financial management. And again, [with] people coming back from that course, we've been able to see that they approached budgeting, expense control, a little differently.

CW: Do you find that there's a steep learning curve for IT staff who may have the technical skills down but not much experience with business and management?

Miller: Most of the people coming up in IT have a number of avenues available to them to sharpen their technical skills. And as managers reach higher levels of management, it's not so much their technical skills that they have to pull from, but it's their . . . interpersonal skills and their business knowledge.

If they're strictly a technician, they're not going to be able to . . . decide what technology is needed if they don't understand how the business works.

CW: What do you think is a good length of time for a leadership-development course?

Miller: It depends on the course, but I think you can learn what's relevant to your job in a day or two. Hit the high points - that's all you're going to remember anyway.

CW: How much time do you spend on leadership development?

Miller: We have performance reviews twice a year with all of our people . . . and have a good discussion . . . about their career path plan. . . . We [also] have, for all of the managers, what is called a 360 review, where [employees, managers and peers] have an opportunity to critique the manager.

And then, anywhere from four to six times a year, I meet with my immediate staff. . . . Once a year, I have a meeting with the chairman of the board, the CEO of the company, to go over our management ranks and what we're doing to train the managers, what managers do we have ready for promotion [or] ready for a challenging assignment. Who are our upcoming superstars?

CW: What type of training do you offer those upcoming superstars?

Miller: We have what we call our Sears University. And it is top-notch classes on a number of things, both technical as well as general leadership skills. . .

. We also have outside courses that we put our managers through - presentation skills, courses on the retail industry. We sent some people to the Society of Information Management Learning Forum, which is a very extensive nine-month course, where the person has to read 40 books. It's two days a month for about nine months.

CW: Is it up to employees to choose their own training programs?

Miller: It really is done mutually between the manager and the manager's manager. . . . We encourage all of our managers to take ownership in their self-development. And that's also kind of a skill or a quality that we look for in our future leaders - is their willingness to improve themselves.

CW: What other skills do you look for in leaders?

Miller: We rate all of our people in areas of integrity, diversity, innovation.

I mentioned development, and that's not only self-development, but it's also in how well the manager develops their people. Another area is building relationships. Another one would be customer satisfaction. Another one would be ownership [of initiatives]. . . . Another one would be business competency. And then, of course, the last one would be teamwork.

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