Discovering the leader within

During her 20-year rise through the IT ranks, Atefeh Riazi had always credited much of her success to what she considered her greatest strength: her diplomacy.

But when Riazi headed to Hartford, Conn., four years ago for an executive education program run by Rensselaer Learning Institute, she had to throw that assumption out the window.

After the course instructor reviewed about 30 questionnaires filled out earlier by Riazi, her boss and her subordinates, she was told that her self-described greatest strength was, in fact, her greatest weakness.

“My problem was I was too frank. I was too honest. And that was not a strength — that was a weakness,” said Riazi, CIO at Ogilvy & Mather, a New York-based marketing firm.

The experience was life-changing for Riazi. But finding executive education programs with that kind of powerful payback can be as challenging for IT leaders as clearing time from their schedules to attend.

Rather than teaching new skills, executive education programs seek to motivate and inspire leaders to think and act in new ways. As a result, the benefits can be as hazy as the subject matter. And in this economy, many IT managers are finding that executive education, for all its benefits, is a tough line to justify in their bare-bones budgets.

To identify what makes an executive education program worth the investment, Computerworld asked 82 IT executives who have selected programs for themselves and their staffs to tell us about their experiences. Based on their responses and interviews with IT managers, we assembled the following tips for picking the best programs.

Find Networking Opportunities

When asked about the most beneficial elements of executive education programs, IT leaders immediately talked about networking. The key is finding conferences that draw big crowds of high-level IT executives who are given time to share ideas.

“It’s invaluable,” said Tim Ferrarell, senior vice president of enterprise systems at W.W. Grainger Inc., a Chicago-based distributor of business maintenance products. “Many people are facing the same problems.” Ferrarell said he looks for conferences that allow plenty of time to talk with other attendees. He sets a goal of meeting five people at each conference and then follows up with them to develop long-term connections.

Such relationship-building is critical, said Sue Goldberg, president of Northeast Training Group Inc., an IT training services firm in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Online training can be helpful, but meeting and brainstorming with peers outside your company is key, she said.

“Executives need to be in touch with other executives,” said Goldberg. “Understanding where people are going, where the world is going. You can’t be abreast of everything.”

It’s human nature to gravitate toward topics you’re familiar with, said Riazi. But she encourages staff members to broaden their perspectives by finding conferences on topics they know nothing about. In performance reviews, managers talk with employees about the areas where they could use improvement, and their professional development is centered around those areas, she said.

Two other types of executive training Riazi suggests are presentation training that teaches managers how to sell their ideas, and foreign language lessons for employees who work with global offices. To gain respect from worldwide employees, it’s important for U.S. managers to understand cultural and technical issues in those countries, said Riazi. A good place to start is learning to speak a few phrases of other languages — a low-cost, high-return training that many executives ignore, she said.

Tom Rideout, senior manager of technology development at Johns Manville, a Denver-based building materials manufacturer, recently gave a presentation at an outsourcing conference held by The Conference Board Inc. in New York. He said that because he was a speaker, he attended the conference at no charge and was able to learn from the sessions and from the questions he was asked about his presentation.

Tight budgets have led some organizations to create their own executive training programs. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), for example, has reduced its training budget to the point where executive education is reserved only for “urgent” cases, said Jim O’Neil, deputy director of IT at the Deerfield-based agency of the state of Illinois.

To save money, the ISAC has instead developed in-house two- to four-hour leadership courses on a variety of topics. That has helped provide continuous management development at a low cost, said O’Neil.

Do Your Homework

Because time and money are in short supply, many CIOs have developed their own litmus tests for executive education programs. Rideout said he considers the quality and regularity of information generated by conference organizers and looks over their Web sites, reads their white papers and talks with colleagues who have attended past programs.

Ferrarell said that before he even starts the selection process, he reflects on Grainger’s corporate mission: to offer an integrated, multichannel delivery line for customers. For him and his top managers, the Leadership and Mastery course taught by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline (Currency/Doubleday, 1994), is extremely useful because it teaches systemic thinking, which applies directly to their work.

Steve Larson, an IT workforce manager at Des Moines, Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., which develops advanced plant materials for farmers, said he considers everything from timing to travel expenses when choosing a program. For example, he looks for courses held in late summer and early fall, which are generally slower seasons at Pioneer.

Larson also narrows down program selections by getting an understanding what a course will require of would-be participants. For example, if a program demands a heavy load of precourse preparation and homework, it might not be the right fit for someone who needs more time for reflection and recharging.

Case study presentations are another popular feature of executive education programs, say CIOs. Ferrarell looks for conferences that offer CIO-only sessions where attendees are presented with case studies and work together to solve problems, such as those offered by Gartner Inc. and Meta Group Inc.

Riazi said she prefers the personal touch. One of her favorite forms of professional development is the one-on-one sessions she attends several times a month with IT management coach Michael Brenner of Brenner Executive Resources Inc. in New York. Riazi said that even though IT leaders’ analytical skills may be sharp, their positions require intense social skills that may have been neglected.

“Leadership is so critical in technology, more than other fields, because it brings about change,” she said.

And despite the increased attention on training costs, most IT executives surveyed don’t attempt to measure the effectiveness of their executive training investments. But they know the value is there.

“I don’t think we’ve ever thought about putting hard numbers to executive education,” said the ISAC’s O’Neil. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin…because I don’t know how you’d measure the impact. Over time, you’d like to think that you get a better approach.”

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