How to learn from leadership leaders

When Jim Miller was looking for some leadership training years ago, his human resources department suggested Otto Kroeger Associates in Fairfax, Va., which had a reputation for development courses based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Miller caught up with Otto Kroeger after one of his classes, chatted a few minutes and was astonished when Kroeger asked him, “If your house has a light with switches in more than one spot, when you’re leaving the house, do you ever go back to be sure not only that they’re off but that both are in the down position as well?”

“Yes,” Miller replied. “I’ve climbed a flight of stairs to do that on occasion.”

“Then you could probably get something out of my course,” Kroeger replied.

That was Miller’s first inkling that he might be a bit of a control freak. “It’s amazing when someone can hold up a mirror like that to you, even if the truth is painful,” said Miller, who has loosened up considerably and is currently vice-president and CIO at Cerner Corp., a maker of health care systems in Kansas City, Mo. In Miller’s case, the pain led to gain.

“Up until that point, my idea of managing was that if I could get everyone to do it the way I did it, life would be really good,” Miller said. “With Otto, the lightbulb went on: not everyone looked at life and work and motivation the way I do. I ought to spend energy on understanding what will turn my people off and on rather than forcing people into things that don’t fit.”

Discovering educational experiences like the one Miller had is an executive’s dream. IT leaders want up-to-the-minute information that they can use right away, and most like to get it informally at conferences and meetings of associations.

“I’ve found them to be the most useful because they provide more state-of-the-art information,” said Emily Gallup Fayen, who handles globalization at RoweCom Inc., a business-to-business service provider in Cambridge. Mass. “The presentations are usually by people actually working in the field where the latest things are happening. And especially in Internet commerce, it’s all changing so fast that talking to people is almost the only way to find out what’s happening now.”

Huge symposia have their place, some argue, as long as your expectations are realistic. “I get a lot out of walking around Comdex,” said Lawrence Mann, support services manager at Georgia Gulf Corp. in Baton Rouge, La. “If you to try to locate the proper network card, you’ll go crazy. But you can just get exposed to a lot of stuff and get the pulse of what’s going on.”

Others find the usefulness of conferences inversely proportional to their sizes. “If you’ve got 1,000 people in an auditorium, I get very little out of that,” Miller said. “Usually, you’ll get as much if you read a book.”

In contrast, Miller said he found an AT&T Corp. executive development conference for about 30 CIOs very useful. “They brought in speakers from around the industry and academia and tried to test the group’s ability to get out of the box,” Miller said. Most important, he said, is that participants can talk to presenters at breaks and meals, “so you can take the content of the session and dive down into it.”

IT leaders stress that only part of the educational experience of a conference takes place at presentations. The rest happens “between the cracks,” in the hallways, bars, restaurants, parties, vendor receptions and even bathrooms. Managers can help their reports get the most out of conferences by assuring them up front that socializing is an intrinsic and valuable part of the experience and isn’t considered “goofing off.”

“The more the conference attendees hang out with peers, the more they learn,” said Cathy Hotka, vice-president of IT at the National Retail Federation in Washington. “Your nightmare as a CIO is to send your people to a conference and have them eat dinner in their rooms.”

Leadership and management education is in greatest demand, but Fayen notes that programs fail if they’re too general. “I just got back from one for everyone from first-line managers to senior executives,” she said. “It’s very hard to construct a management training program that will be appropriate to all of them.”

Miller said that like many IT professionals, his personal style is heavily skewed toward thinking rather than feeling. Becoming more aware of that “has been more helpful for me in my career than any content or skills training I’ve ever received,” Miller said.

A user-group meeting can combine vendor know-how with user networking for a successful educational opportunity, said Don Williams, director of information management at Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

The best thing about user meetings, Williams said, is that they focus on the issues that are keeping CIOs awake. For him, that’s the new federal regulations regarding the portability of health care insurance and the privacy and security issues they raise.

“One of the things I expect to see at the user group is how we can realistically deal with these issues,” Williams said.

How to Choose

IT leaders are barraged with pitches for education. Mann winnows them down by comparing opportunities with the gaps in his IT skills assessment database. When an employee attends a session, he adds information about the class and its usefulness into the skills database so that next time, prospective students can get insights in advance.

Many glean information the old-fashioned way. When Miller was looking for leadership training, he talked with peers in other IT shops.

“The Center for Creative Leadership came up a half-dozen times, and we got a good feel for it,” Miller said. “I became the guinea pig and went first; then we scheduled 12 more folks over six or eight months.”

“I look at the agenda,” said Bruce Barnes, vice-president for technology strategy and planning at Nationwide Mutual Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. “What are they intending to do? How specific is it? I look at the quality of presenters. Do I know them? I also try to assess how experienced they are in the space where the training is being focused. I want ‘been there; got dirty.’ I check the list of ‘satisfied customers,’ and if I know them, I call and say, ‘What do you think?'”

IT executives measure the effectiveness of a program by results. Barnes takes notes during sessions about where to apply skills or information on the job.

Fayen said if she comes away with one useful thing, the training was worth it. She looks for new insights from employees.

Mann said a program was worth it “if it sticks with me. You can get a high off a program, but then a week later you say, ‘What can I do with it?’ Good ones teach me something I can use.”