IT leader focuses on people skills at MBA boot camp

One of the most effective ways to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in the culture. The same wisdom may apply to CIOs who are looking to beef up their business and leadership skills.

It was the total immersion in Queen’s University’s three-week Executive Development program that made all the difference for Mark Thompson, the director of IT planning and governance for Enbridge in Calgary.

“Because the course ran for three weeks straight, from early morning to late at night, it allows you to focus only the program,” says Thompson, who had appointed someone on his team to become the acting director of IT while he was on course. “You can get rid of the things that are holding you back and you have time to get some clarity of thought around how you would use the things you’ve learned.”

Last April, Thompson joined about 40 other executives from various industries across the country in Kingston, Ont., for “MBA boot camp.” During the three-week course, participants are educated in the fundamentals of a business degree: finance, leadership, human resources, strategic IT and operations management.

The program is geared to senior management types who are interested in taking on greater leadership roles, says Tom Anger, executive director of Queen’s executive development program.

For Thompson, it served both as a general refresher – he has an undergraduate degree in business administration – and an opportunity to network with executives outside of IT, and from various sectors.

“I was looking to meet people from different backgrounds and industries,” Thompson explains. “I’ve worked in four or five different industries and I’m always amazed at the different perspectives people bring. I got a chance to work with people in construction, the public sector and the service industry.”

Thompson says that an historical weakness in the development of IT professionals is to focus on technical skills rather than on people skills. Human resource development was the cornerstone of the Queen’s, something Thompson wasn’t keen on as an undergrad, but can now see the value in.

“I’m a lot more interested now in organizational change management and team development, and (because of the Queen’s program) I’m considering doing more work in this area,” he says. “People who do the best remember that it’s people we work with, not machines.”

Thompson says the program expanded his personal toolkit for problem solving, by offering new ways of looking at old problems.

“It forces your mind to think in ways it wouldn’t normally do,” he says. “You tend to rely on the things that were successful in the past, but by bringing new tools in, it expands the scope of what you can solve. It makes you a better manager.”

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