Career clinic: Are leaders born or made?

Technology skills, yes. Managerial experience, no. How can I boost my C-level skills?


I have an excellent CV in terms of technical expertise, but little in the way of managerial or leadership experience. I need to improve this to make the next step. Obviously attending courses can only do so much – what can I do to improve my business and soft skills?

Nigel Underwood is global CIO of DHL Logistics and member of Logistics board. Previously Nigel was CIO of Exel (which subsequebtly merged with DHL and Deutsche Post) and a member of the executive board. A BSc in Mathematics graduate of Nottingham University, Underwood spent his early IT career in the fast-moving consumer goods industry with big brands including Boots, Mars and Coca-Cola Schweppes.

Ben Booth is global chief technology officer at market research agency, Ipsos-MORI and has over 20 years experience in IT management roles. His previous posts include CIO at MORI and head of technology at the publishing house, Reed Chemical Group. Ben is a Fellow of the British Computer Society and of the Royal Society of Arts, a Liveryman of the Information Technologists Company and vice chairman of the BCS Effective Leadership in IT (ELITE) Group.

Richard Hordern fronts QA-IQ's Leadership and Organisational Development Practice, working with clients to design and deliver solutions to their leadership development needs. His work has included clients in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Previously, Richard worked as a change management consultant for PA Consulting Group, and before this was UK Head of leadership development for Reuters. He started out with LloydsTSB. Hordern is a regular speaker on a range of leadership and learning subjects and holds a Masters degree in Management Learning from Lancaster University.


Nigel Underwood says:

You can demonstrate leadership in anything you do. When I look at CVs, I always look for examples of softer skills, which are played out in people’s social lives. There are many ways of getting ahead at work other than the doing this beyond the techie, “I’m the world’s best C++ programmer”, approach.

A lot can be gained from talking to colleagues in the business. If you’ve no empathy for what the brand or what your business is trying to do you can easily get lost. Whether you do this through a formal mentoring programme or in more informal chats with confidante, the most important thing is to gain this understanding of business context

There are many courses on offer, too, that will teach you about important processes. Whether project or finance related, these ‘how tos’ and these will help you take people with you on a journey – the essence of good leadership.


Ben Booth says:

Formal training can be very useful, but usually it gives best value when it sits besides experience and is put into practice.

I would start by explaining to your manager that you want to broaden your experience and add managerial skills.

This could be achieved by supervising more junior staff or running a particular project or just part of a project. Shape your proposal along the lines of what you can do to help and refer to whatever you have done previously, which has a management or leadership content. This doesn't necessarily have to be a formal project management role – it can be an example of where you have delivered a particular piece of work that needed you to bring together the efforts of different members of the team. Or you may have some experience outside work which is relevant.

As you develop competence and management skills I'm sure you will be asked to take on more, and hopefully a new role with higher management content will emerge for you.

Finally bear in mind that not everyone who is technically excellent makes a good manager. If you find this isn't for you then there are still jobs for the technically brilliant, but you need to make sure you are working in an environment which appreciates what you can contribute.


Richard Hordern says:


To take that next step in your career you need to become a ‘business’ person rather than just an IT person. Becoming a leader is as much about your approach as it is about individual skills - you need to behave like a leader before you become one.

This means that you need to learn to talk the language of business. Make sure you understand your organisation – what are its core competencies? How do we make money? What are our main cost bases? Shadow someone if necessary or ask someone in Finance to talk you through the key elements.

Become a ‘can do’ person, and take calculated risks – go out on a limb for what you believe and trust your instinct.

Understanding the people you work with is also important. Learning to trust and delegate - letting go of the ‘day-to-day’ stuff - is essential, as well as building relationships with people who have influence. Be brave enough to hire people who are better than you, and communicate openly and honestly with them.

This sounds like a lot to take in, so don’t forget to keep a sense of humour – this is essential in the workplace, especially amongst leaders!

Find your next job with computerworld UK jobs

"Recommended For You"

How IT pros should gear up for corporate leadership Your best chance for long-term employability as an I&O professional