How to transition into the boardroom

Today’s IT executives are living in a Wild West show with all the works – the gun-slinging, the white and black hats and a variety of agendas flying at them like bullets from different directions.

At least that’s the picture Harry Mingail paints. A faculty member at the Canadian Management Centre (CMC), Mingail teaches courses and gives seminars centred around business skills development.

“It’s almost borderline chaos with with all interest groups and technologies,” Mingail said. Information overload is another burden, and the executive, faced with “downsizing and merger mania,” has to learn to do more with less, he said.

To have a fighting chance in this environment, Mingail said top IT dogs need certain skills such as effective recruiting, business planning and the ability to influence without total authority. But the problem, he added, is that those executives who have moved up the line from a computer science and programmer/analyst background often show up on the executive scene without the expertise to handle the situations they will face in that position.

“There’s this whole aspect of leadership that’s a lot more than being a technology guru – it’s about getting people to follow you,” Mingail said, adding that many managers also don’t understand planning at a strategic level. “There are so many opportunities that are missed because of that.”

James Goodnight, co-founder, president and chairman of Cary, N.C.-based business intelligence software maker SAS Institute, comes from a programming background and has a PhD in statistics.

In an interview with ComputerWorld Canada, Goodnight credited his statistics background, which is “more about logic than anything else,” with helping him develop some of the skills he can apply in his current position – like common sense and the ability to evaluate information before making a strategic decision.

These days, the ideal IT executive is someone who can “do both conventional IT and business things,” Mingail said, adding that vision for the future of the company should come naturally. “The middle manager has a narrow scope, but the IT executive has to have vision (for) the business to determine what kind of technology can be leveraged,” both now and down the road. An understanding of the big picture coupled with fiscal responsibility are key characteristics that distinguish executives from lower-level managers, he said.

Dorman Woodall, director of e-learning strategy for SkillSoft, a Nashua, N.H.-based e-learning solutions company, agrees. A former director of MIS for Colgate Palmolive and director of IT for Burlington Industries of Canada, both in Toronto, Woodall said he used to have trouble convincing people to use the applications he was developing. “I just assumed everyone knew everything I knew,” he said. “But I had to spend some time training and explaining” before people understood what IT could bring to the table, he said.

While at Colgate, Woodall was forced to learn to speak in business terms because he had to get in front of people and present cost-benefit analyses so he could get money for projects. And as a consultant, he learned to talk to CEOs about strategies and business outcomes.

Proper training is key for IT types who want to move into the boardroom, said Mingail, adding that CMC has a “potpourri of courses” that could be useful for IT staff who want to grow into higher-level positions. He recommended starting at the project management level – “it’s like running a little business on its own.” The next step up is a course in senior project management, and the student is eventually certified as a project management professional.