Executive training: What's hot

Computer World –

When Jim Miller was looking for some leadership training years ago, his human resources department suggested Otto Kroeger Associates in Fairfax, Va., which had a reputation for development courses based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

He says he caught up with Otto Kroeger after one of his classes, chatted a few minutes and was astonished when Kroeger asked him, "If your house has a light with switches in more than one spot, when you're leaving the house, do you ever go back to be sure not only that they're off but that both are in the down position as well?"

"Yes," Miller replied. "I've climbed a flight of stairs to do that on occasion."

"Then you could probably get something out of my course," Kroeger said.

That was Miller's first inkling that he might be a bit of a control freak. "It's amazing when someone can hold up a mirror like that to yourself, even if the truth is painful," laughs Miller, who has loosened up considerably and is currently vice president and CIO at Cerner Corp., a maker of health care systems in Kansas City, Mo. In Miller's case, the pain led to gain.

"Up until that point, my idea of managing was if I could get everyone to do it the way I did it, life would be really good," Miller recalls. "With Otto, the lightbulb went on: Not everyone looked at life and work and motivation the way I do. I ought to spend energy on understanding what will turn my people off and on rather than forcing people into things that don't fit."

Discovering educational experiences like the one Miller had is a CIO's dream. But there are plenty of nightmares to be had. In an effort to take some of the guesswork out of the quest, Computerworld surveyed 410 information technology leaders about what sings and what doesn't in executive education.

IT leaders want up-to-the-minute information that they can use right away, and most like to get it informally at conferences and meetings of associations.

"I've found them to be the most useful because they provide more state-of-the-art information," says Emily Gallup Fayen, who handles globalization at RoweCom Inc., a business-to-business service provider in Cambridge. Mass. "The presentations are usually by people actually working in the field where the latest things are happening. And especially in Internet commerce, it's all changing so fast that talking to people is almost the only way to find out what's happening now."

Huge symposia have their place, respondents say, as long as your expectations are realistic.

"I get a lot out of walking around Comdex," says Lawrence Mann, support services manager at Georgia Gulf Corp. in Baton Rouge, La. "If you go to try to locate the proper network card, you'll go crazy. But you can just get exposed to a lot of stuff and get the pulse of what's going on."

He says he attends Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.'s Symposium/ITxpo for the same reason.

Others find the usefulness of conferences inversely proportional to their sizes. "If you've got 1,000 people in an auditorium, I get very little out of that," Miller says. "Usually, you'll get as much if you read a book."

In contrast, Miller says he found an AT&T Corp. executive development conference for about 30 CIOs very useful.

"They brought in speakers from around the industry and academia and tried to test the group's ability to get out of the box," Miller says. Most important, he says, is that participants can talk to presenters at breaks and meals, "so you can take the content of the session and dive down into it."

IT leaders stress that only part of the educational experience of a conference takes place at presentations. The rest happens "between the cracks," in the hallways, bars, restaurants, parties, vendor receptions and even bathrooms. Managers can help their reports get the most out of conferences by assuring them up front that socializing is an intrinsic and valuable part of the experience and isn't considered "goofing off."

"The more the conference attendees hang out with peers, the more they learn," says Cathy Hotka, vice president of IT at the National Retail Federation in Washington. "Your nightmare as a CIO is to send your people to a conference and have them eat dinner in their rooms."

Among professional associations, respondents praised the Information Management Forum as a place to meet and network with clients and competitors and hear about upcoming technologies and how they might be used.

IT leaders also had good things to say about short-term, university-based leadership courses from Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Virginia, among others. They praised their reality-based case studies, close alignment with current issues, presenters with real-world experience, interaction with peers and action-oriented lessons.

Leadership and management education is in greatest demand, but Fayen notes that programs fail if they're too general. "I just got back from one for everyone from first-line managers to senior executives," she says. "It's very hard to construct a management training program that will be appropriate to all of them."

Among programs focused on leadership training, The Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., got the nod from many companies for intensive, high-quality, content-rich programs. Miller says two of the center's sessions helped him modify his behavior to become a more effective leader.

"Their approach is to force you out of your comfort zone to learn about your behaviors, insights, motivation and communication style, with the intent that you learn how to modify your own behavior so you can become a more effective leader," Miller explains. "They show you that you're really dealing with people's emotions in addition to the content on the table."

This approach was a revelation for Miller. He says that like many IT professionals, his personal style is heavily skewed toward thinking rather than feeling. Becoming more aware of that "has been more helpful for me in my career than any content or skills training I've ever received," Miller says.

Vendors often sponsor educational opportunities, and several respondents praised IBM's sessions for being carefully tailored to specific audiences, with plenty of action items to take home.

A user group meeting can combine vendor know-how with user networking for a successful educational opportunity, says Don Williams, director of information management at Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

The best thing about user meetings, Williams says, is that they focus on the issues that are keeping CIOs awake. For him, that's the new federal regulations regarding the portability of health care insurance and the privacy and security issues they raise.

"One of the things I expect to see at the user group is how we can realistically deal with these issues," Williams says.

How to choose

IT leaders are barraged with pitches for education. Mann winnows them down by comparing opportunities with the gaps in his IT skills assessment database. When an employee attends a session, he adds information about the class and its usefulness into the skills database so that next time, prospective students can get insights in advance.

Many glean information the old-fashioned way. When Miller was looking for leadership training, he talked with peers in other IT shops.

"The Center for Creative Leadership came up a half-dozen times, and we got a good feel for it," Miller says. "I became the guinea pig and went first; then we scheduled 12 more folks over six or eight months."

"I look at the agenda," says Bruce Barnes, vice president for technology strategy and planning at Nationwide Mutual Insurance in Columbus, Ohio. "What are they intending to do? How specific is it? I look at the quality of presenters. Do I know them? I also try to assess how experienced they are in the space where the training is being focused. I want 'been there; got dirty.' I check the list of 'satisfied customers,' and if I know them, I call and say, 'What do you think?' "

IT executives measure the effectiveness of a program by results. Barnes takes notes during sessions about where to apply skills or information on the job.

Fayen says if she comes away with one useful thing, the training was worth it. She looks for new insights from employees.

Mann says a program was worth it "if it sticks with me. You can get a high off a program, but then a week later you say, 'What can I do with it?' Good ones teach me something I can use."

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