The leadership skills required in information technology today are similar to those of a managing partner or chief executive.

However, the decision-making styles and focus may be somewhat different. The trend in corporate governance is to include IT leadership in the board room, rather than only consulting when there are problems or special projects. This comes from the fact that IT is being viewed as a strategic asset in growth organizations, rather than as overhead.

Given this premise, the CEO or MP should either have an increasing knowledge of IT, or include a person with IT skills on the management team. Firms are moving from IT directors or IT partners to chief information officers.

The seven basic skills required of a CIO are:

* Leadership;

* Finance skills;

* Human resources skills;

* Marketing and communications skills;

* Technical IT skills;

* Project management skills; and,

* Business savvy.

As both firms and the importance of IT have grown, organizations now require more than just the IT technical skills. Some of the technicians who have grown with the firm are being ask to expand their skills into areas where they may have limited experience and training.

CEOs and managing partners tend to have firm administrators or a chief operating officer, human resources professionals and others to assist with their roles. The IT director has typically been asked to do all of the above with a limited staff and often limited cooperation from firm administration and human resources. Most firms and organizations will advance significantly by including the CIO position on the management team. The size of the organization and the number of IT-related staff will determine the level of the position.

Share the plan

It is very difficult for IT personnel to provide leadership and vision if they don't know the firm's strategic plan. We have found that many firms have tried to operate with a technology plan and budget, and yet don't have a written strategic plan.

Without a strategic plan, the technology tends to move ahead of the firm. By this, I mean that the IT personnel know what needs to be done, but the partners do not agree upon strategic initiatives; therefore, too few resources chase too many projects. When this happens, firms risk the loss of quality IT personnel to competitors and other industries that are focused and value the IT professionals.

IT leadership is expected to attract and retain IT professionals, and to build teams within their department as well as throughout the firm with end users. They also often must manage projects with restrictive budgets and limited time frames.

Another skill required is that of communicator and marketer. IT leadership must be able to communicate technical projects in a manner that professionals can accept and understand. The old adage of being able to tell time rather than being able to build the watch still applies. People with only IT technical skills have difficulty selling projects and communicating with end users. The same can be said for accounting technicians.

The similarities between the CEO and CIO roles should be apparent by now. Let's look at where the two positions may differ. The big difference is how decisions are made. As a leader there are at least five ways you can make a decision. They are:

* Be authoritative: Make the decision yourself.

* Seek consensus: Agree to, but not necessarily with, the decision.

* Delegate: Give it to someone with more expertise and experience.

* Consult: Gather opinions, but reserve the decision for yourself.

* Promote democracy: Voting doesn't generate consensus, but is less expensive and time-consuming.

Firm management is not a matter of representative government. Use voting (democracy) only when nobody has the authority to make a decision. This occurs regularly in many professional service firms. Each of the methods has a place and great leaders use all of them. The challenge is using the method that is best suited for the situation. Ineffective leaders tend to only use one method in making decisions.

The CIO is a leadership position in the firm, but will have limited decision-making authority, as she typically reports to the CEO/MP. There will be instances where the CIO does have the authority to make decisions, and thus the ability to select the decision making method. In other instances, she will be involved in consensus-building, delegation or consulting.

The CEO or MP is at the top of the chain of command and will determine the responsibilities and authority of the CIO. Trust and teamwork will play a large role in the relationship between them. The majority of high-quality decisions come from the consultation and delegation processes. Democracy and authoritarianism generally produce low-quality decisions.

Firms need a CIO in today's market. The size of the firm will determine whether the role is a full-time or a part-time position. The CEO or MP's IT knowledge and skills will also have an impact upon the position. The CEO or MP should build a team with complementary skills.

If your firm hasn't looked at the CIO position, it should. Start with the firm's strategic plan and the CEO/MP's skills, and develop a job description that complements the firm's strategic objectives and unique abilities.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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