Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

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3. The Power to Plan

Strategic thinking takes average CIOs to the level of leader.

By Mary Brandel

It's unusual to hear a CIO talk about the positive side of having limited resources. But as Craig Berry, senior vice president of IT and CIO at software firm UGS Corp. sees it, he'd prefer to be handed a lean budget than an inflated one.

Why? Because frugality can be your greatest ally when it comes to planning, Berry says. "Without frugality, it's too easy to give all these wild horses in IT the opportunity to run free with technology and yet lack purpose," he explains. "But cost disciplines give us the opportunity to think very carefully about that next IT investment."

In other words, anyone can invest in technology, but it takes an IT leader to efficiently support the business's top objectives with effective, sustainable, low-cost systems that promote future integration, according to Berry. And that, he says, takes strategic thinking.

"Strategic thinking is the differentiator between a CIO and an effective CIO," agrees Vijay Sonty, CIO for the School Board of Broward County Education Technology Services in Sunrise, Fla.

A case in point is the business performance dashboard initiative that Berry's group launched two years ago and has been phasing in this year at Plano, Texas-based UGS. Rather than building a separate data warehouse using existing data to answer each reporting question, the company widened the effort by forming an "insight team" that encompasses both business and IT professionals. The team's goal was to define the company's biggest reporting challenges and the data improvements needed to address them.

With the committee's input, Berry's group designed an architecture that --because it integrates product, customer and industry hierarchies with consolidated application, warehousing and dashboard technologies -- is able to report on a range of business questions. "If we'd jumped into a data warehouse without knowing our driving needs," he says, "we would have developed departmentally optimized solutions that don't meet our highest-level business goals."

Getting involved with such committees is a way for IT leaders to ensure that they're driving technology in strategic ways, Berry says. In fact, he spends about 30% of his time working with cross-functional teams. The teams foster integrated thinking, and because the goal is to support high-level business goals, there's less argument over whose departmental concerns should take top priority. "That's where strategy is born," Berry says.

What It Takes

Sonty's transition from project manager to IT leader 12 years ago marked his shift from a tactical mind-set to a strategic one. That meant broadening his thinking as well as the world in which he operated.

"IT at a strategic level involves many players, and you all have to work together and come up with a plan that you're all convinced is the best plan," he says.

For Sonty, that means taking into consideration the needs of 231 schools, 274,000 students and 19,000 teachers. "You need a strategy that covers all those areas," he says.

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