Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

A few parts technical know-how, a dash of diplomacy and a few other staples make up the traditional leader profile. The Premier 100 talk about their top seven must-have skills.

1. The Ability to Lead

Few are born leaders. Most spend countless hours cultivating the skill.

By Mary K. Pratt

In the midst of the national crisis immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, Anthony Cicco Jr.'s staff had to set up temporary offices for 1,700 displaced congressional workers. What normally takes months, Cicco accomplished in just four days.

It was a pivotal juncture, and Cicco says his leadership skills played a crucial role in his ability to carry out his duties as deputy chief administrative officer and CIO of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. "I tried to be on call for anyone who had an issue so nothing got hung up. Whenever you do that, people get energized and they know 'This guy's going to be here,'" he says.

Anthony Cicco Jr.

Anthony Cicco Jr.

Image Credit: Chris Hartlove

Cicco, who in October became senior principal for enterprisewide services at SRA International Inc., a technology consulting firm in Arlington, Va., admits that he hasn't always had the leadership skills to pull off such a feat. But Cicco says he knew what he needed to learn and worked hard at it.

In fact, this year's Premier 100 put the ability to lead at the top of the list of essential skills for IT managers. It's what business demands. "Companies are looking for people to provide leadership, to motivate and mentor people who come along so the projects keep rolling along smoothly," says Perry Paden, a managing director at recruiting firm MSI International in Atlanta.

But many IT executives quickly point out that no one is born with all the characteristics needed for leadership. Instead, IT managers must decide to pursue that goal and develop the traits -- drawing on books, courses, relationships and experience -- to become the business leaders that IT needs today.

"You make a decision in your mind that you want to be a leader," says Jo Ann Boylan, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Cleveland-based Ohio Savings Bank, which has nearly $16 billion in assets and branches throughout Ohio, South Florida and Arizona.

What It Takes

Top executives say true IT leaders must be smart, confident, flexible, creative and persuasive. They must have integrity, initiative, empathy for others and courage of conviction. They also need technical expertise, experience handling difficult situations and great communication skills.

And while some leadership characteristics -- namely extroversion and charisma -- are innate, the other traits can be learned and developed.

"Leadership requires a combination of training, mentoring and taking on the tough assignments to stretch oneself in order to improve technical and leadership skills," says Raj Datt, vice president and CIO at Kennametal Inc., a Latrobe, Pa.-based company that supplies tooling, engineered components and advanced materials for production processes.

The first step in leadership development is to examine your strengths and weaknesses, Boylan says.

Consider how Cicco did that at the GAO. When he started in the CIO job in 1999, his staff gave him "less than favorable" marks on the annual employee feedback survey.

Those results didn't sit well with him, so Cicco took action. He opened a weekly management council meeting to all employees, helping to dispel workers' mistrust. He worked hard at communicating policies so everyone understood them. And he remembered to smile and say hello when walking by people, a step that helped build better relationships.

Leadership: How to Soak Up the Skill
  • Use your own observations, as well as those from career coaches and mentors, to identify which of your leadership skills are strong and which ones need work.
  • Get help. Courses such as those offered by the Center for Creative Leadership, as well as books such as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press, 2004), by Stephen R. Covey, are worth the investment.
  • Seek out challenges to help you develop and sharpen your leadership skills. Volunteer to make presentations if you're uncomfortable with public speaking. Work with a team to broker deals if negotiations make you nervous.
  • Find a safe environment in which you can practice. Roundtable discussions, mentoring relationships and other professional relationships can be safe havens for discussing how to best lead a team.
  • Don't wait for a crisis. True leaders demonstrate their talents -- from the ability to communicate well to a willingness to listen -- daily and consistently
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