So, are you leadership material?

Do you have the traits that inspire others? Are you ready to march into the new millennium leading the information technology legions?

If you’re destined for leadership, you’ve probably already figured out that being a technical wunderkind isn’t the key. You need an array of abilities such as problem-solving, conflict resolution and communications skills, as well as business savvy – which is a key requirement.

“If you’re moving into IT leadership, you have to demonstrate an ability to understand that you’re running a business within a business,” said Ed Toben, CIO at Colgate-Palmolive Co. in New York. “You have to look at your resources and manage that business in such a way that it can be an integral part of the larger corporation.”

Business skills aren’t the only thing IT leadership scouts are checking out in potential candidates. “The skill mix changes when you get into a leadership position,” said Jim Miller, manager of administrative services for corporate information systems at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, Ill.

“We stress softer skills, like communication and interaction with peers.”

Established IT leaders have slightly different takes on what they’re looking for in soft skills from their leader wanna-bes. But they agree that as you climb higher on the corporate ladder, inner qualities become more important, while technical wizardry becomes less critical.

“I look for people who are crisp, open, take-charge,” said Frank Korahais, senior vice-president in corporate systems and architecture at The Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. “You can sense, even in an interview, someone who can build a high-performance organization, who can pull the right resources together, look at an organism that needs to keep growing in terms of continuous improvement.

“We look for people who have a sense of urgency about what they do. Those leaders are people who takes responsibility for their own destiny.”

People who are going to be successful IT leaders need a keen sense of responsibility and accountability, Korahais said. “Our job is to communicate and build partnerships, to get things done, to influence the process – with the clients one supports, but also on a parallel peer level, to promote collaboration.”

CIOs are hiring and promoting “people” people. “If you are going to be in a leadership role where you are managing a department, I look at people’s interest in people,” said Birgitta Klasen, senior vice-president and CIO at Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. in Peapack, NJ. “It says a lot about the maturity level of people if they’re interested in coaching and mentoring, helping other people to be successful.”

At Caterpillar, management is actively promoting these ideas throughout the company, at all levels. “We developed a series of courses in soft skills,” Miller said. “They cover things like managing conflict, managing change, negotiating.”

Champions of Change

Leaders also need a dose of creativity and vision.

“A leader is a champion of change, someone who can look at a process and visualize something different, better,” Korahais said. “I observe people’s performance, and they should observe their own. You have to focus on results. If you observe this in your own performance, then I want to talk to you about leadership opportunities.”

Those people then need to be cheerleaders for change. “They have to articulate their vision in crisp messages and mobilize people toward it,” Korahais said. “The leader is basically a messenger and essentially becomes the message – people follow because they understand who the messenger is and the story he or she is telling.”

Klasen said working in sales for 10 years before moving to the technical side prepared her for a leadership role in IT.

“You really need to get people on board,” she said. “If you can’t explain your ideas in business terms, they won’t believe you or trust you. You need to talk their language to give them that confidence.”

Said Korahais: “One important thing I learned is there is no cookbook for [leadership]. We need a person who is able to manage multiple people and multiple skill sets, to find a creative way to navigate that complexity.”

Menagh is a freelance writer in Calais, Vt.