Human Capital Concerns

Q I have always maintained that the most important aspect of IT is the people. The technology is just a tool by which management furthers the interests of the business and enhances shareholder value based on knowledge gained from the data that they are able to turn into useful information. If we are to believe what we read about a shortage of individuals with IT skills, it appears that one of the most vexing problems that CIOs and their staff are having is the ability to recruit and retain people. Add to this the push for developing some level of diversity (other than H-1B candidates) throughout the enterprise. What advice would you give to CIOs who are looking to increase the level of diversity within their organizations? And is diversity something that CIOs are concerned about?

A You are absolutely right when you refer to human capital as the most important asset of any enterprise. In IT, the boxes and the pipes are certainly critical. But the people behind the IT vision, the strategy, the design, the deployment and the support of the technology are what's really important. The right people can make the difference between business success and failure, between good and bad company operating performance and between market leadership and mediocrity. Most good CIOs and other business leaders know that their No. 1 job is acquiring, developing and holding on to good people. This mission-critical responsibility, exacerbated by a shortage of professional IT personnel estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000 and still growing, usually overshadows the diversity issue. That is to say, given the shortage of talent, CIOs and their management team will pursue all qualified candidates regardless of any diversity issues. Those companies and those CIOs that are tuned in to the value of diversity, and proactively seek out diversity candidates, can be rewarded by the contribution such candidates can make. There are several professional organizations and societies such as the Black Data Processing Associates (www.bdpa.org) that can help.

This situation, however, is not without hope. A recent study of the highest paid, most successful minority executives in corporate America, sponsored by Korn/Ferry International and the Columbia Business School, reveals what it takes for these top-level managers to move up the corporate ladder and the strategies they use to overcome discrimination in the workplace. One of the survey's most significant findings is the importance that role models and mentors play in determining chances for success. Forty-eight percent of respondents say they had a role model who helped guide them toward early career goals. In their professional careers, formal and informal mentoring is seen as a key to the development of minority executives. In fact, finding a committed mentor was listed as a crucial turning point in many of these executives' careers. Seventy-one percent of those surveyed say they have informal mentors and 22 percent have formal mentors, usually white males in both cases. Copies of the study are available by request to mark.polansky@kornferry.com.

EXECUTIVE MBAS

Q I'm a manager of a world-class Web development team seeking an opportunity to excel in a global company of 4,000 employees and $1 billion in revenue. As I hone my leadership and technical skills, one thing I strive to improve on are my financial and global management skills. I'm confident that a structured approach in these areas through an executive MBA program will round out my background in becoming a future CIO or senior executive. As I formulate a convincing argument for my company to fund and sponsor participation in a program at a top-tier university, I'd like to know what your thoughts are.

A An executive MBA should routinely qualify for consideration under the "tuition refund" benefit program of larger corporations and many smaller companies as well. I don't think that you can quantify the benefit of such a program (or any other education, for that matter), but a qualification of the investment -- through your increased knowledge, abilities and value to the company -- should be fairly easy and straightforward in an enlightened environment.

The big difference here, and the precedent that will be established, is that most executive MBA programs take you away from your day-to-day activities and limit your availability -- perhaps every other Friday, weekends or a couple of weeks during the summer, plus the expense of the travel to and from. Therefore, I think your biggest challenge is to convince management that you can juggle your schedule, continuing your commitment to your workload while getting their money's worth for the time and dollar investment they will make in you. Alternatively, pursuing an executive MBA via distance learning, in which the classroom comes to you, may alleviate some of the lost time and travel cost concerns of your employer. Any good search engine or educational portal should help you find the better ones.

And yes, we do occasionally see tuition payback clauses in benefits policies that might typically say that you must reimburse the company if you leave within one year of receiving the benefit. Lastly, it would be dangerous to assume that your company's reluctance to sponsor your executive MBA is a vote of "no confidence" in you and take it personally. They may not be willing to spend the money or set the precedent regardless of who asked for it. Nevertheless, I would rethink the company -- and it's policies -- as a long-term employer in light of their refusal.

THE NEXT BEST THING

Q I have landed that next good opportunity, though it is not in my desired geography -- Utah is a long way from Florida, where I wish to be. However, I know that there probably will be another job change in my future. My question, then, is what is the best way to announce my taking this new position to my network of professional contacts and the retained recruiters that worked with me? I want to let everyone know where to find me and handle that sensitive issue of wanting to hear about appropriate opportunities in my home state near my aging parents.

A The first part of your question is pretty simple. Draft an upbeat thank-you letter to your network of friends, colleagues and recruiters you contacted during your job search, whether they were helpful or not. Express your appreciation for all their encouragement, advice and assistance, and also let them know about your new role and your new contact information. This is a classy way to bring closure to the process and allows everyone to update their contact manager or database.

The second half of your question is both difficult and disturbing. I will assume that you were previously employed and that you compromised your geographic objective in favor of the "good opportunity" in Utah, and therefore you simply must be prepared to spend at least a year or two at your new position unless it turns out to be a mistake. To tell the world (other than your very closest friends) that you have taken a new job but that you still want to hear about opportunities somewhere else is to declare yourself to be fickle, untrustworthy and perhaps a few less polite adjectives as well. The good recruiters will remember your desire for Florida or have captured that information. Some will discount you for having taken the Utah position, and others will call you agaiin sooner or later. Otherwise, look forward to a future opportunity to recontact your network and alert them to your availability for a change based on geographic preference. And stick to it next time.

CERTIFICATIONS: WORTH THE EFFORT?

Q I have more than 15 years' experience in IT, starting as a programmer and working my way through various industries to a regional IT director position. I've decided to strike out on my own as an independent, and I really love working with the new and popular technology. To update my knowledge and to gain further credibility, how desirable are the current certifications offered by the major software and networking companies, and do prospective clients consider these certifications valuable when selecting a consultant or contractor?

A Certifications are always welcomed on a rsum as an indication of having received proper training in a particular technology or skill, and perhaps as a reflection of you as a focused, determined and conscientious professional. Certifications usually demonstrate a positive attitude toward putting forth the time and effort for self-improvement -- toward one's career in general and the desire to excel and get ahead. And certifications can be an extremely significant differentiator among those who lack on-the-job experience but have the relevant training, and can often help you get a foot in the door.

Certifications won't substitute for hands-on experience in landing a position that requires know-how, but certifications will enhance the value of those who have them. As I have said in this column on several occasions, take advantage of any potentially meaningful opportunities for education, be they degree courses, certificate programs or seminars. Just be wary of the commercial training hucksters that unfortunately seem to follow closely behind the hot skills of the day and the job market.

AM I EXPERIENCED?

Q Since graduating from college with an MBA in finance and marketing, I have spent the last 12 years rising rapidly through the ranks of IT including eight-and-a-half years in a Fortune 500 company and the last three years as an IT director (formal position of CIO does not exist) for a midsize company. While the IT assignments and experiences have been exceptional in both companies, I have not been given formal opportunities for executive leadership outside of IT. I attribute much of this to working for companies in industries that have not traditionally looked to IT to cultivate top executive talent and are not known to be on the leading edge in many respects.

I have a goal of leading a company and have expressed this to my employer. My work experience and educational background would seem to uniquely position me to lead an Internet-centric company. Your advice?

A My sense is that you are getting ahead of yourself, and that there are some important dots that you have not yet connected. First, I hear you, with respect to your IT management experience, but you didn't mention any experience on the operating or administrative side of your employer's business. If your objective is to lead a company, then transfer out of IT into an operating department and learn the business internally, from the ground up. A series of low to midlevel management positions in producing, marketing, selling, distributing, servicing, administering and supporting your employer's goods and services -- coupled with your already developed leadership skills -- should prepare you for your goal in time.

As for running an Internet company, your IT experience may very well make you an attractive candidate for a CTO position -- planning and building the venture's technical base of operations, especially if you have the appropriate technical knowledge. Again, general management may be too big a jump just yet. Today's young, entrepreneurial dotcom CEOs are usually the creators of an idea. They get the idea in motion, and then move aside in favor of professional management who can effectively build and manage an enterprise, raise capital and create wealth for its investors and employees.

This story, "Human Capital Concerns" was originally published by CIO.

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