"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.