Forging IT leadership Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Today’s business owners are not only requiring their IT staff to be highly skilled in their technical trade, but are asking them to take on a more collaborative approach to management and business operations, and to become more business savvy.

Fifty percent of chief information officers (CIOs) say they are actively preparing IT staff for leadership roles at their companies, according to a recent survey by Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Commonly cited tactics include mentoring programs (43 percent), management training (42 percent) and soft-skills training (35 percent). The national poll includes responses from more than 1,400 CIOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies.

One problem companies could face is that experienced IT employees might be preparing for retirement — all at once. These individuals are often tenured leaders who have helped a company grow and develop over the years. Business owners struggle as they try to figure out how to replace these influential members, says John Paul Demirdjian, branch manager of Robert Half Technology in Chicago.

Smart Business spoke with Demirdjian about what steps should be taken to prepare IT employees for leadership roles, what factors are important to consider when choosing a candidate and how rein-vesting in current employees is the best investment for companies.

How are companies preparing members of their IT staff for leadership roles?

Some companies are early adapters and have already begun succession planning for the future of their company. These companies have identified potential candidates and have invested time and money into training programs so they can develop future leaders. This may include defined mentor programs where people work with or shadow current leaders. Others hold less formal quarterly meetings where employees and leaders meet to examine new trends, set expectations for the future and address changes within the industry.

Soft skills such as communication, delegation, business skills, public speaking and management are now top requirements for IT personnel. Training programs can be used to help IT individuals develop these skills. IT has become a ‘team sport’ and is a critical moving part of the entire business, rather than a segmented department within a company. In today’s technical world, a company’s success will be severely limited without a highly integrated, well-oiled IT operation.

Why is engaging in succession planning a good financial investment?

It can be more expensive to replace an employee than it is to invest in his or her retention. It is no longer appropriate to assign employees to a single task with no room for advancement; a career path must be created and clearly outlined for the retention of such employees. This outline motivates IT staff members to stay loyal to the company and provides strong leadership opportunity.

The trend of reinvesting in employees will continue as people realize that overall business will improve from the standpoint of retention, productivity and profit. Major amounts of time are saved by training current employees, and any time you can save time, you are saving money.

Leveraging an employee’s institutional knowledge is extremely valuable, and investing in their future allows you to retain that critical and often undocumented knowledge within the company. Owners and managers look for the most predictable result; therefore, investing in an employee already on staff is much more reliable and predictable than starting fresh with a new employee.

How can managers predict where employees belong in the future?

This process varies, depending on the industry and size of the business. Generally, managers are looking for consistent performers and employees who are willing to take the extra step without being asked. Employers who review employees’ abilities find these people through regular evaluations. To be successful, leaders need to get to know their employees and be present to see what happens in day-to-day operations.

Employers also look for people who can stretch their skills and take on new tasks. This process does not have to be complicated but can be a great test of a person’s ability to take on leadership roles down the road.

What type of training is the most beneficial and what can employees do if training is not offered within a company?

Balance is the key to the best training possible. An IT department that can leverage multiple streams of training and implement informal and formal company-sponsored events with desk-side coaching will see the greatest returns. There are numerous ways in which individuals can obtain such skills outside of the workplace. Professional organizations, industry associations and technology user-groups are designed to help develop an individual’s soft skills.

Additionally, many classes are available online, at community colleges, and at business organizations dedicated to such training. These courses can be customized and developed to the exacting needs of an organization or an individual.

JOHN PAUL DEMIRDJIAN is the branch manager of Robert Half Technology in Chicago. You can reach him at john.demirdjian@rhi.com.