itmWEB TechWeekly

January 31, 1998

IT Executive Survival Skills (Part 1) 

A two part look at the essential skill sets for today's technology executives.

Garter Group's Ray Bender makes a point during his recent AITP presentation
Ray Bender

Survival as an IT executive in the late 1990's has become an even greater challenge. More complex technical environments, more sophisticated end users, and soaring business expectations all have made the job of an IT executive downright hazardous. One wrong move and you could find your fellow business side executives either working to reduce your IT influence and authority, or even worse, clamoring for your replacement.

Recently, our local Austin AITP Chapter invited Ray Bender, a nationally known IT executive researcher and consultant from the Gartner Group, to speak regarding these "hazardous duty" concerns. I had the good fortune of attending Ray's excellent presentation.

In the following two features, I would like to summarize Ray's main points from this meeting, and then follow each with my personal observations and comments. Part One will cover IT executive success qualities and survival considerations. Part two will cover executive success traits and survival action steps.

Top IT Executive Success Qualities

Ray first presented two slides which were based on studies done by Michael J. Earl at the London School of Business. The first slide outlined the key qualities an IT executive should possess to insure success:

  • Communications Ability

    Ray highlighted the central role of the IT executive in business technology matters. This central role imposes a requirement for clear communication regarding business strategy, technology strategy, and work progress.

    My experience has shown that a successful IT executive must be able to communicate clearly with a wide range of diverse personalities and interests. A typical day could begin with a detailed conversation with a programmer, and end up with a 10,000 foot strategy overview with top management. Communications ability is a vital quality in these varied situations.

  • Technical Knowledge

    Ray made the point that to be truly effective as an IT executive, you have to first understand information technology.

    While some exceptions may exist at companies where "executive transplants" have occurred from the business side, I believe this is an exception, not the rule. Over the years I have found that the most effective IT executives came straight from the technology ranks. These are the people who have a clear understanding of which technology is appropriate for a given business situation. They are also the folks who have a credible technology vision.

  • Business Acumen

    IT executives must be business practitioners first, technologists second.

    IT executive responsibilities include executive communication, strategy and budgeting, vendor relationship maintenance, business problem solving, crisis control, and IT management. In order to tackle these responsibilities, successful IT executives must develop a sharp business sense. Equally important is sustaining a perception by the other business executives that indeed you are a relevant and valuable part of the business. This means addressing technology in business terms at all times.

  • Vision

    As an IT executive, you have the primary responsibility for the facilitation and communication of the company's ultimate IT strategy. This means you are the key provider of IT vision to the business.

    Clearly this takes both confidence and courage.. and a willingness to accept criticism. My experience has shown me time and time again that this is the activity for which IT executives really earn their paychecks. The fact that the IT executive is both the top IT business leader as well as the chief technologist, puts the IT executive in the unique position of seeing the total big picture. From this vantage point he or she must be the first to put a "straw man" vision on the table. This is the key starting point for continuing detailed business discussions, technology strategy formulation, and solution execution.

Top IT Executive Survival Considerations

Ray's second slide outlined the key qualities an IT executive should possess to insure long term career survival:

  • Shared Vision of IT

    Ray remarked that the IT executive must be working towards the same goals as the business. A shared agenda must exist.

    To me, this is survival rule number one. A successful IT executive must work every day to maintain an awareness of important business changes, to establish meetings and forums for information exchange and prioritizing, and to establish joint ownership and accountability for IT initiatives. These activities go a long way toward insuring a mutual involvement and ownership of important IT projects from both the key technology and business executives. It also prevents unpleasant surprises.

  • Relationship Building

    Not only is an IT executive responsible for strengthening relationships between the various technology groups and the supported business areas, but he or she also must sometimes serve as a catalyst for relationship building between distinct areas of the business itself.

    My opinion is that this is another area where the IT executive brings tangible, bottom line value to the business. A good relationship builder can apply these skills to critical situations throughout the company. A wise IT executive uses his or her "big picture" perspective to first spot these opportunities, and then to follow-up with action.

  • Sensitivity

    Ray pointed out that career survival sometimes depends on understanding the "prevailing winds" within the company.

    I found this to be especially good advice. The successful IT executive must understand both the evolving culture and the current business mood at all times. In certain situations, a wise IT executive may find that in order to insure long term career survival, he or she should drop a deeply cherished technology idea or principal because it is simply not embraced by the business. Always take the end user perspective, and pick your battles wisely.

  • Credibility

    The IT executive's credibility must be guarded at all costs. Credibility and effectiveness are mutually dependent and proportional.

    The business depends on the IT executive to be the in-house expert on technology related matters. The IT executive must be able to provide credible technology direction and vision. He or she should push for change when the change makes good business and technological sense. Also, the IT executive should be the first and the highest roadblock in the path of "implementing technology for the sake of technology". The business should always be able to depend on this IT executive level scrutiny. Honoring these responsibilities can work wonders toward keeping one's credibility intact.