Fifteen years ago, the Society for Information Management (SIM) identified IT leadership as a fundamental issue
for the profession and launched the Regional Leadership Forum (RLF). The nine-month program, which runs from January to September, features six intensive two-day sessions. Classes are coached by CIOs and facilitators and include a 30-book reading list. Participants are prodded to discover their inner leaders by presenting topics, leading discussions and persuading classmates that their experiences have relevance for others.
To get a better sense of the program on its 15th anniversary, we spoke with Bob Rouse, professor of computer science at Washington University in St. Louis. In a wide-ranging discussion, Rouse, a program director for RLF, talked about the principles of leadership, the sometimes difficult shift from personal excellence and a passion for technology to fostering excellence in others, and what makes RLF different from its many competitors. Bottom line: CIOs are born and made.
Some would say there are born leaders and born followers, but it sounds like the Regional Leadership Forum opposes that principle.
Rouse: This is a valid question for any kind of creative role you can think of. … What I do know is that is it is possible to learn to be a much better leader than you are now.
The way we look at is that there are certain things that a leader has to know how to do. A leader has to know how to do strategic planning. He or she has to know how to do job delegation. There are things of being a leader that you have to learn through experience and education.
I think our strength is that we also realize that there are some things that a person has to be in order to become a really good leader.
What are those?
Rouse: The purpose of our program is to allow every individual to discover their authentic leadership style … and give them the confidence to manage whoever they're managing, to lead whoever they are leading so people acknowledge that strength and core of principles.
Of course, there is no magic to what those principles are. Integrity is one of them. Consistency is another. A willingness to shed what has been your purpose in life -- at least in IT -- for 10 or 15 years, which is technical excellence, and where you have got your thrill. You have to shed that and get the same kind of feeling of accomplishment when others who are working for you make those accomplishments. That is hard to do.
Are there special leadership qualities that CIOs need that are different from the leadership qualities that a captain of a ship, or a CFO or CEO or others would need?
Rouse: I don't think the differences of successful CIOs and successful CFOs and CEOs are that much different. To me, knowing who you are and being able to lead -- to make decisions and bring people with you -- is a measure of your own personal, and what appears to others as authentic, way to lead. In other words, you're not leading because someone told you, 'Here are the three things you need to do to lead.' You're leading because, 'Here are the strengths I have.'
I think the other thing is, you have to be a very good communicator. The two communication skills we hit the hardest are listening … and being able to focus clearly on your message. We think that one of the problems that IT people have, and technical people have, is that they tend to have ideas in their brains, but successful leaders typically have three overarching ideas that they never let anyone forget and are constantly asking about.
Do you harp on the notion that these ideas have to be communicated in universal rather than technical language?
Rouse: Absolutely. In fact, one of the books we read is called Crucial Conversations, by Kerry Patterson. That book stresses two things: When it is time to have a hard conversation, you have to have that hard conversation, as opposed to dinking around it. And the second point is that the message has to be consistent with the broader goals of the organization, not just about Friday's accomplishments.
Can you train leadership in someone who is middle age, or do you have to be young to have this stuff stick?
Rouse: I think the best leaders discover their own leadership strengths. I think the RLF is the best course of action that a rising leader can use to discover his or her own authentic leadership characteristics. And I think that can happen at age 30. I think that can happen at age 50. And I have seen it happen in both cases.
We've had people sent to the RLF probably five years before they were completely right for it, but they caught on and they have been very successful. We get 50-year-olds who come to the forum and they are typically there for an opportunity to improve their prospects over the next 10 to 15 years. But it is kind of in the fix mode, as opposed to in the discover mode. Their sponsors think, 'He is a good guy, has done good work, he or she has never stepped to the plate on leadership. Let's send them and see if we can make a difference for their last 15 years.' And I have seen that happen. I have seen people become genuinely re-energized and reinvigorated.
One of the paybacks to the sponsor is that he or she finds out whether or not the individual is willing and ready to step up to the CIO role. If a manager, if a CIO, could look across his 500 or 5,000 people, here are five people who could be leaders and want to be leaders -- that would be a huge benefit for the CIO. There are people in the Forum who recommit and reawake to the possibility of being a CIO.
There are other people who say, 'Do you know what I really want to be, is a leader at the individual contributor level. I want to be the person that leads our initiatives -- you name the technology, or the business planning area -- but I really don't want to take on the burden of a senior leader, a CIO.
I don't think the qualities of successful CIOs and successful CFOs and CEOs are that much different.
Bob Rouse, program director, SIM Regional Leadership Forum
I just want to ask one other question. Because you know the brain of the CIO so well, is there anything about people who go into IT that gives them a unique perspective as a leader, a common thread that you see in all your up-and-coming CIOs that has to do with their passion for IT?
Rouse: An IT leader who learns early what the business is about and understands the potential of current and future IT can have significant impact, if he or she can be trusted to be a player in the business, as opposed to being a leader in the technology.
You know the statistics on this -- most CIOs don't last very long. They last for two or three years. These are good people. They are honest, they are hard-working. They are very capable. They are hired to do a technical job. They come in, and they install SAP, or they install a customer resource management system or they come in and clean up legacy systems. That is what they have done and done before and that is what is expected of them. So they are kind of like a high-level database administrator, a person who does the job.
And unless there is another challenge of that sort on the table, it is really time to move on, because your contribution in the eyes of the senior management of the firm has been made. So I think there is a mutual recognition, that, 'We hired you to do this, you did a good job, we love you to pieces, our next big job is this and you've never done that before, so let's hire somebody who has.'
That makes it harder for a CIO to gain the business confidence that he or she has this other capacity I talked about -- to cast the business problems in technical solutions. That gets missed a lot.
Of course, you've been able to see the whole picture by being at a place for 30 years.
Rouse: When I was stupid and young I predicted in the late '70s that by 2000, the gap between IT and the business would be gone, because CIOs by that time would have a gut-level feel for the way they have for marketing and accounting and manufacturing and so forth. I think I missed it by 100 years!
Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.