Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

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6. A Talent for Technology

In-depth knowledge of your systems helps build staff confidence.

By Mary Brandel

When Beach Clark joined the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta as vice president of IT in July 2004, he had a lot to accomplish before the institution's grand opening 17 months later. One item was particularly challenging: getting an online ticket reservation system up and running well in advance of the aquarium opening its doors.

After several failed attempts with packaged software, Clark did what any good IT leader would do -- he rolled up his sleeves and wrote out some specifications for how to integrate the aquarium's on-site ticketing system with its Web-based shopping cart package. He then enlisted the aquarium's Web development company, a few engineers from its ticketing system vendor and some consultants from Accenture Ltd. to build it. Today, 70% of the tickets the aquarium sells are purchased online, compared with an industry average of less than 10%, Clark says.

Although softer skills are getting lots of emphasis these days when it comes to defining leadership qualities, IT leaders also need to be able to dig into or at least understand the guts of computer systems.

"You wouldn't expect a law office or an accounting function to be headed up by someone who wasn't a lawyer or accountant, and I think the same is true of technology," says Clark, who worked for 11 years at the former Andersen Consulting and then at The Home Depot Inc., moving from chief network engineer to enterprise architect for application architecture. Whether to gain the respect of your staff, help keep your company ahead of its competitors or simply keep vendors and other providers honest, a technology grounding is essential, according to Clark and other Premier 100 IT Leaders.

What It Takes

But that doesn't mean you literally have to be able to program; you just have to get past being what Barry Strasnick, CIO at CitiStreet LLC in Quincy, Mass., calls "buzzword-compliant." Strasnick's programming education was limited to the required computer courses he took at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Today, Strasnick says he is considered a very technical CIO by his peers and the vendors he works with.

"You can be a technologically astute CIO without dwelling on the details of programming," he says. Strasnick's goal is to understand and have an intelligent opinion on anything his staff is discussing, aside from the actual code they're working on. And if he doesn't, he hits the Web. "If there's something I'm not comfortable with, I'll go online that evening or weekend, reading to improve my knowledge," he says.

Maintaining technology knowledge, Strasnick says, is the difference between an IT group that is reasonably managed and one that is world-class. "It's a global market now, and if you're a large player in a field and you're not delivering world-class technology, you're at a competitive disadvantage," he says.

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