Seven Essential Ingredients for Leadership

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5. A Mind for Money

Finance is the unifying force that bridges departmental divides.

By Drew Robb

When it comes to finance, IT executives often find themselves feeling like Star Trek's Dr. McCoy when they protest, "I'm an IT director, not an accountant!" But as companies work to integrate their information services and business processes, they have a greater need to count both beans and bytes.

"In the past, there were too many projects that IT, as an industry, worked on based on who screamed the loudest," says Andy Geisse, CIO at AT&T Inc. in San Antonio. "You don't make a decision today without understanding the financial impact on the company."

Andy Geisse

Andy Geisse

Image Credit: Phill Hollenbeck

Geisse was a math and economics major in college, but he also took some accounting and finance courses. He then earned an MBA to better understand financial analysis. He says he uses these skills on a daily, if not an hourly, basis.

"Almost every aspect of my job includes using some financial skills," he says. "For example, when looking at which projects IT should pursue for the company, it involves a detailed analysis of return on investment, expense impacts and capital impacts for each project."

Finance also acts as a bridge between IT and the rest of the organization. "Finance is the common language between disciplines," says Geisse. "Marketing can speak in terms of what they need, and IT can speak in technical terms, but they can communicate in a common financial language to understand what is critical with the company."

What It Takes

Being an IT manager requires more than obtaining a computer science degree or certification.

"An IT leader has to be adept at a number of skills in order to be successful," says David Saul, a senior vice president in State Street Corp.'s office of architecture in Quincy, Mass. He cites skills in areas such as project management, personnel, communications and finance, including forecasting, planning and budgeting.

But finance isn't commonly taught to those pursuing computer science degrees. "Most IT managers, like myself, came from an engineering background and struggle with a budget the first time they have to complete one," says Saul.

So whether or not you're interested in finance, you have to learn it. "You don't need to like it, but you can learn it," says Andreas Wuchner, head of global IT security at Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis International AG. "You can manage only what you can measure."

The required skills can be attained either formally or informally and, just like a certification, should be kept up to date with regular study.

Financial Know-How: How to Soak Up the Skill
  • Spend time with finance staffers to learn their perspective.
  • Use financial terms, rather than IT terms, as a means of communicating with others in the organization.
  • Enroll in accounting classes.
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