We believe leadership is just as much a definable science as management. What has made this notion difficult for most people to grasp is that leadership is seen as being something someone is born with (or not). In addition, management appears more “concrete” to people than leadership. Management is something that they can get their hands around because it is largely about following a set of defined processes.
We would argue that most C-suite executives are selected on their management skills, not their leadership skills, which is why there is a dearth of leadership across both corporations and government. This has occurred in large part due to the fundamental reengineering of organizational structures, operations, and finance that began in the early 1990s and continues today. Organizations are now increasingly organized around short-term projects. Instead of being hired to work for possibly a lifetime in a company, people are hired to work on a project that has a definite lifespan. Once the project is over, individuals are likely to be let go unless they can find work on a new project. According to US government statistics, up until the recent economic troubles, the years a person worked for the same employer has, for more than a decade, been steadily dropping for all age groups except those over 65.
The growth of the project-oriented organization has meant that the acquisition of management skills is seen as the key to career advancement. The other career path is to become a specialist in marketing or sales, or in the financial/human resource management aspects of a company. In earlier organizational structures, where managers could learn leadership skills as they advanced through their careers, there was more opportunity to acquire the experience needed to develop robust spoke behaviors and generalized rim skills. In today’s working environment, specialization is rewarded, whereas being a generalist is undervalued.
The opportunities to learn to become a leader have dwindled precipitously, which means that the deliberate nurturing and selection of individuals for leadership positions is more important than ever. A recent Chief Executive article stated that the best companies for leaders, which generate dramatically greater market value over time than the companies weakest in leadership development, make leadership development a very high-priority commitment despite the current economic situation. Leadership development pays.
Developing the IT Leaders of Tomorrow
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal asked, “Do Techies Make Good Leaders?” The answer was yes, but there are a number of unique challenges the IT industry faces in comparison to others. For instance, the IT industry is full of young people with strong backgrounds in science and technology. They often like working on technical problems more than they like working with people, yet leadership is, by definition, working with people. Surely this makes the development of both leaders and managers more difficult. A 2005 Cutter survey on IT leadership supported this view: the lack of empathy (a spoke behavior), lack of emotional ability (a hub trait), and lack of interpersonal communication (a spoke behavior) were rated as the top three failings in IT managers.
In addition, the IT industry tends to hire (and promote) the person with the best technical skills for a given project. Little thought is given to what is required to develop future corporate leaders. As in other industries and in the HP example, those promoted to the IT C-suite are more likely to be from marketing or finance than engineering, since these individuals are perceived to be more capable of leading (and growing) an organization than someone from engineering, computing, or another technical discipline.
Indeed, few IT organizations have internal programs that can objectively evaluate and enhance leadership — as opposed to project management — skills. Although a previous Cutter study has shown that virtually all attributes significant to the profile of a leader are observable and quantifiable, in the absence of a formal evaluation process, simply knowing what to look for may in itself yield large benefits in terms of organizational performance.
Kerry F. Gentry is President of KFG Enterprises, a program management consultancy. Mr. Gentry is currently active in performing management and technical risk assessments and audits of multinational and domestic civilian and military programs, as well as in conducting project and program management training.