The next leader in your firm could be an information technology professional or chief information officer.
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Sounds strange to some, but the next wave of leaders must have a better understanding of technology strategy for firms to compete in this global, social and mobile environment.
I have said for several years that IT professionals should have a seat at the management table; however, most firms have resisted this strategy and justified it by the fact that many IT professionals did not have the required business savvy and communication skills. The same could be said for many delivery partners who are primarily focused on the delivery of technical services to clients. The purpose is to demonstrate a trend that is occurring, make you think, and allow firms to take advantage of the trend as they select and develop their future leaders.
Most technology people do not enter a firm with the idea of becoming the chief executive, chief operating officer or even perhaps the CIO, but with proper development a CIO can become a COO or CEO. It is certainly easier politically if the CIO is also a CPA, but it is not a necessity, in my opinion. CIOs and IT professionals are heavily involved in most business processes due to the fact that technology cuts across all areas of the practice: tax, audit, sales, marketing, administration, niches and consulting.
This exposure to the entire firm, rather than just a department, provides knowledge that many of today's managing partners and CEOs did not get until they were in their current position. Granted, it takes a person with unique skills and the desire to lead a professional service organization where the firm comes first, rather than the individual. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, describes this as a Level 5 leader. The keys to success, regardless of background and advancement, are leadership and communication skills. Most members of a firm want to follow a leader with a dream or vision.
What are the required skills and why are they so important? How are they developed? Are there tools that will assist in the development of a management team? These are all important questions and I will try to address them with brevity due to the fact that simplification is generally required in order to break through the ceiling of complexity.
Firm management is becoming more complex and requiring broader skill sets such as technology, human resources, talent development, team building, marketing, sales, financial management, mergers and risk management. Let's focus on the leadership skills first. They can be broken into seven distinct areas:
Marketing and sales;
Finance - budgeting and cash flow; and,
Strategy and planning, including technology.
Great leaders are great communicators and listeners. They deliver the firm's vision through a clear, consistent and relevant message. They are multipliers who enable people to do more with less by leveraging resources (both internal and external). They maintain confidence and ensure that the firm progresses. They bridge the gap between IT and the firm's economic engine. They are team builders who recognize unique abilities and how performance and energy are sustained when people focus on their unique abilities, rather than weaknesses. They ensure that projects are prioritized and managed timely and on budget.
Time to think and plan is viewed as important and required of all leaders. Sounds difficult, right? It is, and thus the need for a team approach, not that of a rugged individualist.
These skills come from people who develop them over a career. They require external exposure and peer relationships, as well as internal experience and training. Knowing the unique abilities of the leader allows the firm to build a team of other leaders based upon their unique abilities. Value is created through leadership, relationships and innovation.
THE RIGHT TOOLS
There are tools that can identify the unique abilities of any leader or employee. We have had great success using the Kolbe Index and various team-building tools. The index is easy to use, affordable and requires a limited amount of time (20 minutes). Your score does not change and there is no "right" score or profile. Scores can be aggregated to develop a team synergy report identifying where you and the firm have strengths and weaknesses. The results are liberating to most people and improve their communication skills quickly. The biggest challenge is firms typically hire a group of "Mini-Me's", and then wonder why the team doesn't function properly.
As you review this list, it may quickly become apparent that your technology professional(s) do not have many of these skills. The options are to develop your IT professionals or recruit from the market. Going to the outside is not as easy as it might appear due to the current market demand for IT professionals, particularlyCIOs.
Most firms' infrastructure is very complex, with the silos of tax, audit and attest, and the firm back office. Firms have as many as 10 times the number of applications as their clients to support, and have utilized a silo approach, rather than an enterprise approach, to systems. This results in both complexity and increased costs of maintenance.
For the past three years, we have offered a program called The CIO Advantage. It is focused on IT professionals who desire to advance and provides a peer network and developmental sessions. The results have been amazing, with many participants taking on significant leadership and management roles in their firms. The biggest challenge has been to focus on the communications, planning, project management and team-building skills. The tendency is to want to maintain technical superiority. Those who diversify their skills become much more valuable to their firms. Several have moved into COO roles, with another being considered for the firm's next CEO.
The CIO role is not for every IT professional, just as the CEO role is not for every CPA. It does take a special set of skills, with the most important being the ability to lead. Trust also plays a key role in determining the cost of projects and the required timelines. In firms that have a high level of trust, the investments in time and dollars are less.
Firms can learn from the recent experiences with CIOs. The need for peer relationships and exposure to resources outside the firm is very important. Your firm's next CEO may not come from the CIO track, but will benefit from similar experiences and resources as The CIO Advantage program. Then again, this trend may catch hold and your staff will have an alternative path to becoming the top dog!
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.