Leaders can be made

When Jeff Geltz was chosen by his boss to attend an IT leadership development class, he wasn’t thrilled by the idea.

“It smacked of a remedial program,” he says about the Society for Information Management’s Regional Leadership Forums (SIM RLF). “I thought it was going to be ‘Let’s sit around a room and talk about warm and fuzzy concepts.’ I was more interested in the next project.”

RLF did include what Geltz thought of as warm, fuzzy topics, such as how to establish a healthy balance between work and the rest of life. “I threw it into the bucket that work-life balance is for wimps,” says Geltz, now CIO of eLoyalty in Lake Forest, Ill. “After a while I realized there was validity to the conversation. . . . (Finding a balance) is still challenging to me, because I really love what I do.”

SIM launched its RLF leadership development program in 1992 and has about 1,200 graduates. Each class has about 20 students, many of whom start out skeptical like Geltz but learn the value of sharing personal and professional experiences with what quickly becomes a close group of colleagues.

Graduates say the program helps them see themselves more clearly so they can decide which IT career path is right for them. Participants are generally in the 30s, and their employers invest in the US$6,000 program (US$6,500 for non-SIM members) to groom future IT leaders.

“I prided myself as being a fairly technical person,” says Paul Amorello, vice-president of IT for Pepperidge Farms/Godiva Chocolates in Norwalk, Conn., who attended an RLF in 1996. But he came to realize that even though he was good at solving day-to-day technology issues, he had other non-technical abilities such as humour and perseverance. He chose to use these soft skills as a leader, although it wasn’t an easy decision.

“I still want to drill down on stuff,” says Amorello, who landed his current job 10 months after taking the SIM course. “It’s always difficult to let go, but it comes down to how do you feel comfortable bringing value to an organization? Writing lines of code? Managing programs? Managing people who manage programs?”

For him, it’s about using personal skills and organizing people. “I pride myself on my ability to pull together a complementary group of folks and build a high-performance team,” he says.

RLF is set up to help make this type of decision easier and to develop managers into leaders, says Madeline Weiss, a facilitator who runs classes on the East Coast. The classes run through a checklist of skills that leaders need, including how to motivate people, work well in teams, develop a global perspective, negotiate, build peer networks, set strategic priorities and manage alliances.

The RLF courses run for nine months, with members getting time off from work to meet for two days every six weeks, during which they hear advice from guest CIOs, discuss leadership principles based on their work experiences and glean leadership lessons from readings as varied as The Pearl, The Old Man and the Sea and King Lear.

For instance, classes can learn about the smooth transfer of power from reading about Lear, who turned his kingdom over to two daughters who later betrayed him. “He just let go. He didn’t do it in any kind of planned and gradual way. You let go after you build trust; you do it gradually,” Weiss says.

Molly Mahoney, a current RLF student, says she learned about risk vs. reward from The Old Man and the Sea, the tale of an old fisherman who puts his life in danger to catch the big fish, only to have sharks eat it before he can get it to shore. “Was it worth it? If it’s a lifelong dream, it may be worth it,” says Mahoney, a senior manager of shared services for Attorneys’ Title and Insurance Fund in Orlando. In the story, she finds encouragement to take a risk if the goal is important enough.

The book also shows the value of professionalism and persistence, and that a failed project still can have benefits and rewards, says Mike Carleton, CIO of the U.S. General Services Administration in Washington, D.C.

Beyond the reading assignments, Carleton says personal relationships that develop over the nine months of the course are invaluable. “You are sharing experiences within the forum. With six weeks between classes, lots of real-life things happen — mergers and acquisitions, births in families, job changes,” he says.

In some cases, family members have died. “You go through these things together. It’s personal but not in a way that would get you into trouble. . . . It’s so supportive,” Mahoney says.

This bond is powerful and lasts long after the classes end. Graduates have been known to meet periodically for dinner to keep helping each other with work and personal problems. “There was a common theme to our experiences. We were all IT people, and that was very important to us,” Geltz says. “We were all facing these challenges that you normally don’t talk about with anyone else.”

Some topics they discuss include developing a service-oriented approach to enterprise architecture, outsourcing and the loss of IT jobs to workers overseas.

Carleton found so much value in RLF that he now facilitates RLF classes on his vacation time. “These classes work not so much because I’m pulling it together but because the right people at the right point in their careers are in the room. They develop a group identity,” he says.

Beyond that, participants develop a stronger sense of who they are that can translate into their becoming better leaders. “The kind of individual you are speaks for itself and resonates through your leadership traits. If you don’t know who you are and you’re not comfortable with yourself, that may show up,” Mahoney says.

Carleton says this sense of wholeness is a key element that many IT managers need to achieve before they become effective leaders. “Many folks in IT are self-selected in IT because they like logic, rationality and order, and making things efficient and predictable,” he says. “What happens at the top is the opposite — ambiguity, risky decisions based on absence of complete information.”

While the course helps bring important leadership issues to light, it is not a one-time fix that lasts for life. “Leadership is extremely important to organizations,” Geltz says. “It’s not something you can ignore, and it’s something you can practice, and it takes a lot of effort to be good at it.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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