Great IT Leaders Must Be Great Managers

Many otherwise excellent IT leaders have failed because they took their eye off or didn't care about core management practices.
I've always rejected the saying that leaders do the right thing and managers do the thing right, implying that leaders and managers are different people. Good leaders--and definitely great IT leaders--are adept at managing people (including other executives), projects, financials, and contracts. IT leaders who fail to or decide not to manage all of these areas closely, throughout their organizations, risk ruining their careers and destroying a lot of business value.

Many otherwise excellent IT leaders have failed because they didn't execute all of these core competencies well.

For example, one VP who worked for me appeared to be an outstanding leader. His initiative and motivational skills were superb. He could organize a team and lay out objectives. He knew what IT needed to do to support the business, and he proposed, sold, and executed some important and complex projects. In fact, he was so good in front of executives that they always wanted him to lead their most important projects.

But beneath the surface lurked major trouble. His people management skills were fantastic as long as the team was working well together, but when a manager or director was performing poorly or there was contention within his organization, he usually did little to correct the situation. He focused only on big, complex projects, ignoring staff and partners involved with the smaller stuff. Over time, his organization and business peers began to lose confidence in his ability to manage across multiple, conflicting priorities, even as he remained popular.

Were these management or leadership defects? It doesn't really matter. He failed to execute well on core competencies. Even CIOs advanced in their careers sometimes forget these fundamentals.

A CIO who I worked for is an example. Tall, good looking, great hair--if he had also been young he would have had the four physical characteristics I lack. He also had presence and vision. He was impressive.

Except that he didn't think about project management much. He hired me to fix some products that were buggy and always late. The fixes were quite easy and took only five months to complete. Any CIO with a competency in project management could have directed the same changes just as fast.

He left for a CIO position at another organization, where he launched a $65 million system to manage operations. "We are betting the company on this," he told one trade journal. They lost. The key technical failure was the need for an unprecedented transaction rate from SAP R/3. He had failed to put in place the proper controls for such a technically risky project, and once the extent of the problem was understood, it was too late to recover.

Even one of my idols, the late Max Hopper, former CIO of AMR Corp., could let a high-risk project "get ahead of the headlights." The project, called CONFIRM, was to be a leading-edge travel reservations system combining airline, hotel, and rental car information. The consortium partners were American Airlines, Marriott, Hilton, and Budget Rent-A-Car, with Max's organization, AMR Information Systems, to do the development. This was 1988.

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.
I was the director of data systems way down in Max's organization (I think he had 15,000 people in his organization, which went far beyond IT). Early on, I heard that the plan was to use DB2 as the main database, at a transaction rate far in excess of anything done with DB2 at the time. The main commercial database at the time was IMS. The airline reservation system was on ACP, moving to TPF. Nothing big and important was yet on DB2.

My team was adamant that DB2 couldn't do what was being planned (and later asserted by the CONFIRM team), so I sent our concerns up the organization. My VP at the time, Joyce Wrenn (later the CIO of Union Pacific), sent them on.

Whether or not Max got our concerns isn't important. He didn't ask me and I had the DB2 experts. He didn't know, or didn't listen to, concerns from many other areas about the technical feasibility of CONFIRM. And he didn't know that the project was failing and that the status reports were fraudulent. American Airlines would eventually settle with the partners for $160 million. Max failed to execute people, project, and financial management competencies, and he placed too much trust in the vendors.

Perhaps 30 years ago a CIO and his immediate staff didn't need to be as broadly skilled at management and leadership as today, but I don't remember a time when that wasn't critical. Nor can I remember a time when delivering projects and operational excellence weren't key responsibilities. Today's top CIOs have mastered these core competencies--and many more.

Anyone who has worked, as I have, with Rob Carter (FedEx CIO) or Charlie Feld (Feld Group, former Frito Lay CIO) knows they have mastered people, project, financial, contract, and executive management. Both have substantial technical chops and employ a variety of techniques to keep on top of important projects. Both take a hands-on role when required, but they also know how to redirect a project's management team.

Rob takes contract and vendor management to a new level. He commits a significant amount of time to personally knowing the leadership of technology vendors. Likewise, Charlie is terrific at working with other executives. His Feld Group has taken on some very difficult business transformations.

Strong competencies in people, project, financial, executive, and contract management provide the foundation for all other leadership skills. Directors and VPs who aspire to become CIOs--as well as current CIOs and other senior executives--must continually develop these competencies. That is, do the right thing and do the thing right.

Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at [email protected].

IT is caught in a squeeze between requests for new applications, services, and device support and demands from upper management to keep budgets lean, staffing light, and operations tight. These are irreconcilable objectives as long as we spend the vast majority of our resources on legacy services. Read our report now. (Free registration required.)

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing