Boomer’s Blueprint: From IT geek to executive

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The next leader in your firm could be an IT professional or CIO. It may sound strange to some, but the next wave of leaders needs a better understanding of technology strategy if firms want 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 their resistance by claiming that IT professionals don’t have the necessary business savvy and communication skills. The same can be said for many partners who focus primarily on delivering technical services to clients. In this article, I hope to demonstrate a trend, make you think, and convince you to take advantage of the trend as you select and develop your firm’s future leaders.

For over 20 years, I have observed the progression of leading firms and their technology professionals. We started a program in 1999, the Boomer Technology Circles, that continues to grow today. We developed this program to bridge the gap between firm leadership and IT professionals. Ten years ago, we added the CIO Circle for professional IT leaders wanting to gain the leadership skills necessary to become IT executives within their firms.

Most technology people don’t enter a firm with the goal of becoming CEO, COO or even CIO. But with proper development, a CIO can become a COO or CEO. It’s certainly easier politically if the CIO is also a CPA, but not a necessity. 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, advisory and consulting. This exposure to the entire firm, rather than just a department, provides knowledge that many of today’s managing partners and CEOs didn’t receive until they were in their current position.

Granted, it takes a person with unique skills and the desire to lead a professional services organization that prioritizes the firm over the individual. Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap. . . And Others Don’t,” describes this as a “Level 5 leader.” Regardless of background and advancement, the keys to success are leadership and communication skills. Most members of a firm want to follow a leader with a vision.

The skills that matter

Firm management is becoming more sophisticated and requires broader skill sets, including technology, human resources, talent development, team building, marketing, sales, data analytics, project management, acquisitions and risk management.

Let’s focus on leadership skills first. We can break them down into seven distinct areas:

1. Communications;
2. Business savvy;
3. Marketing and sales;
4. Human resources — team building and talent development;
5. Project management;
6. Finance — budgeting and cash flow; and,
7. Strategy and planning, including a technology roadmap.

Great leaders are great communicators and listeners. They deliver the firm’s vision through a clear, consistent and relevant message. They are multipliers that enable people to do more with less by leveraging internal and external resources. They maintain confidence and ensure the firm progresses. They bridge the gap between IT and the firm’s economic engine. They are team builders who recognize unique abilities and understand that people sustain performance and energy when they focus on those abilities. They prioritize and manage projects timely and on budget. They value time to think and plan and know it is necessary for all leaders.

It sounds difficult, right? It is, and that’s why it takes a team approach, rather than a rugged individualist.

Building the skill set

People develop these skills over a career. It requires external exposure and peer relationships as well as internal experience and training. Understanding the unique abilities of the leader allows the firm to build a team of other leaders based upon their unique abilities. We create value through leadership, relationships and innovation.

One of my favorite quotes comes from Charlie “Tremendous” Jones: “Five years from today, you will be the same person that you are today, except for the books you read and the people you meet.”

That’s why we created peer communities that expose these IT leaders to a wealth of resources from outside the profession as well as to thought leaders at our organization and within peer firms.

What tools can we use to develop a management team?

We have had great success using the Kolbe Index. It’s easy to use, affordable, and requires a limited amount of time. Your score does not change throughout your career and there is no “right” score or profile. It indicates how you will best perform utilizing your unique abilities. It also allows you to aggregate scores to develop a team synergy report identifying strengths and weaknesses. The results are liberating to most people and help them improve their communication skills quickly. The biggest challenge is that firms typically hire a group of people who look, think and act like themselves, and then wonder why the team doesn’t function properly.

As you review this list, it may become apparent that your technology professionals don’t have some of these skills. You can either develop your IT professionals or recruit them from the market. Going outside is not as easy as it might appear because of the current market demand for IT professionals, particularly CIOs. The infrastructure at most firms is very complex. They may have 10 times the number of applications as their clients and use a silo approach rather than an enterprise approach to systems, resulting in complexity and increased costs of maintenance.

The biggest challenge is focusing on communications, planning, project management and team-building skills. The tendency is to want to maintain technical superiority, but people who diversify their skills become much more valuable to their firms. Several former CIOs have moved into COO and CEO roles within their firms.

The CIO role is not for every IT professional, just as the CEO role is not for every CPA. It takes a unique set of skills — the most important being the ability to lead. Trust also plays a crucial role in determining the cost of projects and the required timelines. Firms that have a high level of trust typically need to invest less time and money into their projects.

Firms can learn from recent experiences with CIOs. IT professionals need peer relationships and exposure to resources outside the firm. Your firm’s next CEO may not come from the CIO track but they will still benefit from a peer network. Then again, this trend may catch hold and firms will have an alternative path to becoming the top dog!

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Practice management Professional development CIO