If you’ve worked in the IT industry for any length of time, you’re certain to know at least a few accomplished technologists who became project managers, directors and even CIOs, only to have their careers subsequently stall. In many instances, these IT leaders are bright, friendly individuals, liked and respected by their teams and co-workers. So why did their climb up the corporate ladder come to a sudden halt?
IT knowledge, intelligence and people skills aren’t enough to ensure promising technology leaders progress through the corporate ranks. IT leaders who want to grow their careers need to learn essential business skills such as understanding how to communicate IT solutions and concepts to non-technical executives, knowing how business processes work outside the IT department and understanding how to create and manage a budget. As CIO magazine noted in its 2014 State of the CIO Survey, IT leaders who want to be perceived as true business peers rather cost centre managers need to have a complete understanding of how their companies work and serve their customers.
Don’t be too book-smart
The most common way aspiring leaders look to improve their business skills is through schools and courses. Books and theories are useful in pointing students in the right direction to become better leaders, but they often lack real-world applicability. Too often, MBA courses and business school programs focus more on research and numbers than soft skills and critical thinking. A 2013 report found CEOs and other executives were less than impressed with the state of business education, citing too much focus on theory and too little practical problem solving.
Ideally, companies would assign promising IT leaders a mentor — someone from the senior management team intimately familiar with business processes, budgets, customers and the ins and outs of a firm’s executive politics. Unfortunately most of these potential mentors are far too busy managing and guiding their companies to take someone under their wing and teach them the business skills they need to know.
Welcome to the real world
So how can technologists looking to boost their business skills get the knowledge they need? An excellent option is to look for business courses or programs taught by instructors with a technology background, who moved up into the executive ranks — people who have walked the same path the aspiring IT leaders are looking to follow.
Students will still learn the same theories taught in more academic programs, but they’ll also learn practical tips from current or former executives who have worked in real-world environments. Drawing on their own experiences, these instructors can teach students skills such as: how to stand out as an IT leader; how to speak effectively to business executives who possess little or no technical knowledge; how to translate business goals into technology solutions; and how to navigate executive politics. This knowledge will help aspiring leaders step into more senior roles with the knowledge and confidence they need to help their organizations achieve their goals.
How important do you think real-world experience is in business leadership education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Barry Clavir is the Co-founder and Managing Partner of Leaders Beyond. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.