A one-on-one learning programme can stimulate a CIO’s managerial development, reports Gary Flood
Chief information officers (CIOs) can attend all sorts of training courses to improve management skills – from the impact of Microsoft Vista to climbing cliffs in Wales. But a new sort of training is beginning to be of interest to professionals in the IT sector – and there is not a handout or crampon in sight.
Business, or sometimes executive, coaching is an intense, one-on-one form of personal development, with the focus on stimulating new ways of thinking on the part of the candidate. It is usually a method turned to by chief executives (CEOs), but is becoming increasingly popular with other business leaders.
How could coaching be of use to CIOs, so much of whose job depends on technical skills and knowledge? The idea, says one such coach, Angela Rutterford-Adams, senior partner at Dawes Ryan Consulting (DRC), is that training provides a one-to-one relationship between a coach and a business executive.
‘The focus is on the professional and personal development of the person being coached, and the coach’s role is to facilitate the learning process by helping them to help themselves,’ she says.
Rutterford-Adams and others emphasise that coaching methods are not the same as mentoring. ‘One difference is that a mentor, typically, is someone more senior and more experienced than the person being mentored,’ she says. ‘Part of their role is to advise, pass on knowledge, and even to use their own network to influence on behalf of the person they are mentoring.’
But a business coach will resist offering specific advice, and focus more on enabling the person being coached to learn for themselves. Rutterford-Adams says the coach will offer feedback, encourage and support the executive, and challenge any limiting beliefs or behaviours they exhibit.
‘They work with them shoulder to shoulder to stimulate thinking and learning and encourage them to make differences in what they do and how they do it,’ she says.
‘This is all about supporting people to achieve a development goal successfully. It could be about a senior manager stepping up to a directorship, about a CEO changing his leadership style after a merger or acquisition, or about successfully embedding a newly appointed executive into a new organisation with a very different culture.’
So, the emphasis is very much on soft skills and career advancement. Thus it should be seen as a natural tool for technologists aspiring to get to the board.
Or is it? Actually it turns out that very few CIOs have so far enrolled for business coaching. ‘I have to admit I have not trained any IT people at all in my career,’ says Bill Shiels, director of Wibral, an established business coaching company.
Does that mean business coaching is not relevant to senior IT people, and should be left to their peers in finance, sales or marketing? Business coaches disagree, either claiming it is simply a matter of educating CIOs about what the approach can do, or that the better IT leaders have in fact cottoned on to the technique already.
Francois Moscovici, director of coaching firm White Water Strategies, says business coaching will help the CIO gain more confidence at the top table.
‘Many functional specialists feel uncomfortable at the top, especially when they need to have a point of view as business directors,’ he says. ‘Many specialists, especially technical ones, tend to hit a self-imposed glass ceiling. They need to acquire and practice more ambiguous skills, such as dealing with people, emotions and imperfect answers.’
One business coach who has worked with many IT people on the supplier side, including the likes of CA, VMWare and Sophos, is Isobel Rimmer, managing director of Masterclass. She says CIOs are starting to see the value in the approach.
‘The role of a coach is to challenge you to look at how else things can be done, and this is as relevant in IT as it is in all other business sectors,’ she says.
‘The bad ones, of course, say no one can teach me anything. The best and most ambitious CIOs know different. We are seeing more IT people come to us as clients. They don’t want to accept the status quo – they want to progress.’
Business coach Shiels encourages CIOs to start considering if the technique could be useful for them. ‘This could really help the IT guy get engaged and get support,’ he says. ‘These people usually will not have anybody they can talk to that can help them in the organisation, so it could be very valuable to get some skills to communicate the value of what they do better. I suspect it is because IT people tend to hide under the aura of mystery of their dark art.’
Business coaching is also seen very much as a confidential process.
‘The objectives are agreed between the three stakeholders – the coach, the executive and the employer,’ says DRC’s Rutterford-Adams. ‘However, the process by which the objective is accomplished is confidential to the coach and the executive.’
So, it could be that many more IT people than first suspected have undergone the process, but wish to keep the fruits of the work private.
Having said that, Computing Business did find a lot more business coaches out there willing to boost the value of their approach than they did satisfied customers.
The suspicion has to be that many IT leaders are still to be convinced that this form of personal development is worth the time. This presents a problem if the ultimate aim of the IT manager is to sit at that famed top table, because our business peers are far from holding back on exploiting all the techniques they can use to get there.
The common factor, says Rutterford-Adams is that people who want to work with a coach are looking for change.
'Whether they want to become more influential at the board table or they want to raise their game for their next role they want action and are committed to their development,’ she says.
If that does not sound like you, is it time to ask yourself: why not?