At this point, it’s not difficult to convince the heads of companies the importance of investing resources in leadership development. According to a 2012 report from Deloitte, corporations spend $14 billion annually on leadership development, and a McKinsey survey (PDF) found that it’s one of executives’ top three priorities. In fact, two-thirds of executives listed it as their biggest priority.
But this doesn’t mean that leadership development is being applied across all departments equally. Though C-suite executives see the value of cultivating leaders in marketing, sales, and customer service, it’s less common that you see them make similar investments in their IT departments.
This can usually be attributed to IT’s historical role as merely a department for “keeping the lights on,” i.e., it’s thought of as the place to call when your email login isn’t working rather than as a source for technological innovation. Because of this stigma, communicating the importance of IT leadership development can still be an uphill battle.
According to Kevin Ryan, this is a huge problem for any company attempting to compete in a 21st century marketplace. Ryan has spent over two decades working in IT leadership positions for companies like Aetna and CIGNA, and since 2005 he’s been a national director and facilitator for the Society for Information Management’s Regional Leadership Forum (RLF), which has hosted leadership development programs for thousands of IT employees across the U.S. He’s seen firsthand as IT has shifted from being an ancillary part of business to playing a primary role that touches every department, from sales to marketing to customer service.
“I think [leadership development] is a wonderful opportunity in the IT industry,” Ryan said in an interview. “Because IT now touches the whole business, there’s a broad array of day-to-day functions that an IT leader is involved in, and so there’s a strong need for IT leaders with skills in project management, analysis, metrics for success measurement, and operational excellence. At the same time, many of the disciplines that we have in IT become really applicable in other parts of the business, and it gives the opportunity for an IT professional to have a lot of growth and make a big impact on the business. IT leaders also have the need to develop the relationship areas of leadership”
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Ryan outlined a number of core skills that would be strengthened by leadership development. Chief among them: self awareness. “What people are missing is really the self awareness side of leadership,” he said. “By that I mean how to get things done through others when you don’t have positional power, and so what you need is the influence skills and the self awareness skills to understand what I am doing right in influencing people and what I am doing wrong.”
Case in point: When Ryan worked at CIGNA, he wanted to improve and expand the data network, but when he initially pitched it to executives they remained skeptical as to why additional resources were needed. “They were saying ‘why do I need to spend more money? Can’t you fix it the way it is?’” he recalled. “I struggled for a while until one day I came across a set of reports that our call centers had developed to talk about their capacity. It allowed me to point out of a specific when we had thousands of members, here’s what our call center configuration looked like, and then when we doubled the business, here’s the investments we made. We hired this number of people. We invested in infrastructure, buildings, and people. I used those reports to explain why we needed to invest in the network, and by giving them something familiar and relating the technology to that business problem, it broke through to them. We just changed the conversation into something the business community understood. Network throughput, latency, and bandwidth capacity relates directly to number of calls, length of time to answer, and people available to answer the phones. And after that, the barriers fell down.”
Without proper leadership development, an IT professional in a similar situation might find it impossible to communicate their needs in a way their colleagues understand, and this can lead to all sorts of problems ranging from inadequate budgets to low morale. “At the end of the day, leadership development gives you contextualizing skills to see things through other people’s prisms instead of just fighting for your own view of the world,” said Ryan. “It’s really about making what you do as an IT professional relevant to the success of the business. IT Leaders need the relationship skills to effectively impact the business and find a place of peer recognition with senior leaders in the C-suite. Then will you see true innovation.”