Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

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2. The Capacity to Communicate

The audience will change, but the messages must be consistent and candid.

By Drew Robb

The IT profession might attract more than its share of introverts, but communication is downright essential for those at the top.

"It is critical to be able to articulate the benefits of information technology to the business or organization," says Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and CIO of the nation's 12th-largest school system, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. "IT expenses are large, and one must continually justify the expenses and show the value added."

Maribeth Luftglass

Maribeth Luftglass

Image Credit: Chris Hartlove

Luftglass, who joined the school system in 1999, oversees 420 IT staffers; 92,000 computers; an online learning system for 189,000 students, teachers and parents; 41,000 e-mail boxes; and a wireless network with 9,000 access points.

"In my position, I must gain the support of an elected school board for my enterprise technology initiatives," she says. "I strive to establish a strong relationship with each board member, and frequently provide public presentations on the initiatives and value to the education of our 165,000 students."

In addition to giving the superintendent, the school board and her colleagues monthly briefings on technology initiatives and trends, Luftglass invites the school board and district leadership to visit the schools twice a year to see the technology in use.

But communication must also go out to end users and IT staffers. Lynn H. Vogel, vice president and CIO at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas in Houston, says that when officials there decided to implement a new governance process that was far more complicated and involved more constituents than the previous one, they engaged in a three-step communication process. First, formal presentations were given to executives, department heads and managers. Next, small group discussions were held with IT department heads and staffers. And finally, companywide communications were disseminated in the form of e-mails from the CEO to the center's 15,000 employees, postings to employee Web sites and FAQs on the IT department's site.

The success of the project is clear on two counts: positive end-user reviews based on interviews by a consultant hired to evaluate the process, and an annual increase of 25% to 30% in IT investments since the new governance process was implemented.

"This is an example not only of the effectiveness of individual communication tools, but of how communication has to be part of the entire IT investment process," says Vogel. "We currently require a formal communications plan as part of every project that uses information technology."

What It Takes

Communicating isn't easy for everyone, but it can be made less difficult even for the most reticent. "This skill can be improved through practice and coaching," says Larry Quinlan, CIO at Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, a 35,000-employee unit of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. "Of course, some are more natural than others, but improvement is not only possible, it is expected."

"Modeling behavior is often the best tutor," says Karen Hopkins, a principal at The Hopkins Group LLC, a Dallas-based human resources consulting and outsourcing firm. "As staffers witness the effectiveness of the leader's communication style, they will work at adopting these behaviors."

Communication: How to Soak Up the Skill
  • The best way to improve -- for the experienced and the reticent -- is to practice, practice and practice.
  • Get feedback on presentations, and use that insight to hone your skills.
  • Observe others who are good communicators, and model your approach on theirs.
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