July, 2016
Wednesday, May, 1, 2013
Teaching the Softer Side of IT Leadership
Tags: leadership
Posted By Prof. Sean Kern Lt Col , Cyberspace Operations Officer, Air Force and H. Mark McGibbon, Lockheed Martin Visiting Chair at the National Defense University (NDU) Information College (iCollege)

Over the past several years, I (Dr. McGibbon) have taken hundreds of graduate students enrolled in the National Defense University (NDU) Information College (iCollege) Advanced Management Program (AMP) to various cities such as New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Seattle, and Las Vegas for a one-week field study. During these field studies, students visit with CIOs from private industry and government organizations ranging from nationally known CIOs from Microsoft, Google, and Lockheed Martin to local CIOs from the city mayor’s administration, police departments, and hospitals. Regardless of the CIO visited, there is a resounding theme CIOs have told them: “Before taking this job, I wish I took more courses in leadership, process improvement, culture, and human behavior because these subjects are what CIOs deal with on a daily basis.” These CIOs normally follow this sentence with, “Heck, the technology aspect of job is easy, it’s the people part that’s difficult!”   

Managing technology can be an overwhelming job to some government leaders who prepare themselves for an information technology (IT) management position by mostly taking engineering or technology-related graduate and undergraduate classes. Indeed, as cyber becomes a key area of global focus, and “soft power” the greatest strategic advantage, government leaders need to understand not only the technology they manage, but also the “softer” topics to effectively and efficiently lead and manage the IT, people, and processes within their organizations. Some of these additional softer management skills items may include:

  • Leadership                                                                                         
  • Strategic planning
  • Measuring performance and effectiveness                                        
  • Process improvement
  • Procedures and policies                                                                     
  • Capital planning and assessment
  • Acquisition                                                                                         
  • Program and project management
  • Enterprise architecture                                                                       
  • Cyber and information security
  • eGovernment/eBusiness                                                                     
  • Future technology assessment

These skills—leading, managing, teaming, communicating, negotiating, visioning, planning, measuring, and being social—are considered “soft” because, unlike technical skills, there is no right or wrong way to do it, only best practices and sometimes finesse. Yet all these skill are required of today’s IT leaders. Having a firm grasp of a variety of skills will make for well-rounded IT leaders who can transform government organizations from good to great. An aggregation of the hard-science subjects with soft management skill topics will provide mid-to-senior level IT leaders with the knowledge to discuss engineering and technology-related subjects with their employees, as well as effectively lead and manage government organizations via best practices, strategic planning, process improvement, mission implementation, and feedback for continuous improvement. Luckily, within the federal government, there are educational options available for IT leaders, and one of these is the National Defense University (NDU) iCollege in Washington, DC.

We both earned engineering-centric graduate degrees. Shortly after graduation, we thought we were ready to lead technology related government organizations; however, we discovered we lacked the knowledge and experience to be great leaders even with our newly acquired graduate school degrees. For example, in 1995, as a mid-level U.S. Naval Officer, I earned a graduate degree in Information Technology Management (ITM) from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). Although the name of this graduate degree included the word “management” the ITM curriculum emphasized engineering subjects over the softer management skills such as strategic planning. For example, my first exposure to strategic planning was difficult because, although I was good at managing short-term multiple projects, I did not understand how to develop a long-term strategic plan with vision and mission statements, goals, objectives, and initiatives. Further examples come from my colleague, Prof. Sean Kern, who earned his first graduate degree in 2000 from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in Software Engineering. For the most part, AFIT’s Software Engineering curriculum also focused on engineering, and limited the soft management skill courses required to lead and manage the IT workforce. Again, understanding the principles of engineering and how technology works is only one aspect of the IT leader’s job description. Even with military service graduate school and real-world IT leadership experiences, such as we had, many mid-to-senior level government leaders require more—not less—soft management skills to effectively and efficiently manage IT-related operations.

The CXOs and Soft Management Skills

Further, as a government IT leader advances into higher positions of authority, such as a chief information officer (CIO), chief technology officer (CTO), chief information security officer (CISO), chief enterprise architect (CEA) or cyber leader (Cyber-L), then the need for these softer management skills becomes a necessity. Fortunately, those working higher education within the federal government recognized this several years ago and introduced the Department of Defense Computer Institute (DODCI) in the 1980s. In 1992, DODCI was re-established from a technical training organization to a mid-to-senior level IT education college and changed its name to the Information Resources Management College (IRMC). Today, IRMC is called the Information College (iCollege) and is one of the regionally accredited colleges within the National Defense University (NDU), which is located in Washington, D.C.

In 2006, I arrived at the NDU iCollege as the first visiting chair from the Lockheed Martin Corporation. Before my arrival at the college, I worked in the IT field for 25 years and thought I had a good handle on leading IT organizations because of my education and experiences as a CEO, CIO, and CEA. However, after earning a Government Information Leadership (GIL) graduate degree from the NDU iCollege in 2012, and then reflecting on my past leadership and technology management performances, I should have completed this type of education 20 years ago—instead of being a good leader, I would have been great! Similarly my colleague, Prof. Kern, who has been teaching at the NDU iCollege for the past six months also realizes the value of acquiring the unique blend of leadership and technology courses offered at the college.   

Available Government Education

Mind you, I do not have a vested interest in promoting the NDU iCollege except for my sincere conviction that the education offered here is unmatched in terms of preparing students for today’s leadership and technology challenges. At the NDU iCollege, there are several leadership and technology programs offered to mid-to-senior officials who work within the federal government, private industry, and international organizations. These programs are flexible enough for students with busy schedules because classes are taught both resident and online. Additionally, students may enroll in classes for 3-graduate credit hours or simply for take classes for professional development. Moreover, this education is tuition free for qualifying military service members O-4 and above, and to Department of Defense (DoD) civilians GM/GS-12 and above. Non-DOD students pay tuition at very reasonable rates. Students have the added benefit of selecting either a graduate certificate program (accepted by nearly 40 U.S. partner universities for nine to 15 graduate credits) or a master’s degree of science in government information leadership with several sub-specialties concentrations:

  • Cyber Leadership
  • Cyber Security
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • IT Program and Project Management
  • Enterprise Architecture
  • Government Strategic Leader

So what makes the NDU iCollege education so special? The college’s professors place a special emphasis on both leadership and technology skills required for students to make positive impacts as leaders within their organizations.

Do It Yesterday

Engineers and technology experts working within leadership positions should be keen to enhance their technical skills with some of these softer skills to bring their organizations to the next level. Leaders who combine their engineering knowledge with soft skills will acquire a holistic picture of their organizations and increase the probability of achieving mission success – connecting people, culture, tools, and policies. Outstanding IT and government leaders will embrace continuing education as a way to stay abreast of the ever-changing technology and cyber arenas and to keep their organizations viable.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, Lockheed Martin or the U.S. government.

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