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Can good IT managers make great business leaders?

The best IT managers have a background in IT and general management.

Recently, many people have been pointing out to me how my O’Reilly blog on IT leadership and the attendant observations on technology have been resonating outside of the IT community. Specifically I’m told, the subjects I’m writing on have meaning and value as general business management content. As I pondered on this notion, it struck me (and it’s obvious in hindsight) that in a world where technology is a fundamental foundation of almost all business, there’s not a great deal of difference between the skills required for good IT management and that of general management.

However, as true as that might be, as I further considered the thought, I concluded that good IT management doesn’t necessarily equate to great business leadership.
We hear it all the time: today, CIOs and IT leaders must be able to partner with other members of the C-suite and in addition to running the operations of IT, be able to grow the business through IT enablement.

After all, the CIO is first and foremost a business leader.

Here’s the ask: the CEO wants more value from IT, the COO wants optimized operations, and the CFO wants it all at the least possible cost.

This requires the CIO to understand business and — surprise — have some form of general business background. That being recognized, the most common path to IT leadership is still through the IT organization, and that means the CIO strength may be of a technical nature with a nuanced flavor of management. That can often present a problem.

It’s important to recognize that to run an IT project or to manage a team of IT developers requires good management techniques. But all too often, IT professionals exist and operate in a vacuum resulting in a variation of management absent of inputs such as market forces. In other words, the typical IT manager, for example, may never be exposed to a P&L statement.

This is not by intention, but comes about as a result of how almost every IT organization operates. Largely shielded from the real work of the business, IT has both the convenience and the limitation of working with internal sponsors who are captive customers with no choice of supplier. That couldn’t be any more different than leaders who were groomed with and are working with the open marketplace. Put another way, acquiring management skills within the IT organization may result in a myopic view of general management.

The best IT managers I’ve seen have a background of both IT and general management. Many IT managers do not get to work in a non-IT environment. But the IT managers that do best are often those that have had more business exposure than their peers. Take that as a tip for any aspiring IT manager.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that a great IT leader doesn’t need a technical background or a good understanding of technology. That’s necessary and expected. After all, one assumes that the reason for wanting to be an IT leader stems from a passion for technology often reflected in a life of mild obsessiveness with geekdom. What I am suggesting is that a technical background with IT management skills may not be enough to cut it as a great business leader.

To succeed, an IT leader must learn to talk in the language of business. For example, cloud computing is about potential cost reduction and new business opportunities, not some abstract technology term that introduces a suite of complex new service models. The latter has a place at your IT team meetings, but will do little to invoke attention in the board room.

A great IT leader is also a salesperson who takes an idea and inspires the audience. He or she must drive emotional commitment from a team and sell a vision that people can buy. That killer combination of communicating IT innovation in business terms, understanding the numbers, and eliciting belief from the C-suite can form the backbone of highly effective business leadership.

Without these skills the CIO can often be relegated to order-taker and maintenance guy.

Being a good IT manager is hard. Being a great business leader is harder. What separates them is not just the ability to continually and uniquely inspire, but first to be a really well-informed and skilled business manager. Get the basics right, learn the business, understand the financial aspects, think big picture, talk the talk, inspire through your values, and then deliver. Hit many of these on the head and you just might shine as a business leader in the C-suite.

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  • Alex Tolley

    Why is IT management any different from other specialty management, e.g. scientific research?

    If the specialized manager needs broader skills, that is what MBA programs fill.

  • http://www.twitter.com/@neiljpearce Neil Pearce

    I agree with you Jonathan a great example of this is the new CEO of Tesco (Worlds Third Biggest Retailer) Philip Clarke who started out in store management, marketing then moved to IT where he eventually took on the Group CIO role. His responsibilities were increased to include the international businesses and now he has the top job. For an IT Leader to be a great Business Leader they have to have the broader skill set and experience.