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Training the hard-wired brain

Training the hard-wired brain

Two of the three cognitive skills required to be a top-notch IT executive are the same as those required to be a star IT employee.

Would it surprise you to learn that high-performing IT executives possess many of the same strengths as high-performing IT professionals who have no management responsibility? After all, doesn't it seem natural to assume that the skills needed to be a successful CIO differ from the skills that are required to be a good programmer, network administrator or DBA? In fact, in light of results from recent studies, it appears two of the three cognitive skills required to be a top-notch IT executive are the same as those required to be a star IT employee: Metacognition (the ability to objectively evaluate your performance and figure out ways to improve it) and Working Memory (the ability to remember lots of different things while working on complex tasks).

The skills required to be a good IT manager, however, are typically different from those of high-performing IT executives and employees. To succeed, IT managers in particular need to excel at planning and prioritizing, be able to think before they act, and be flexible.

Those are some of the intriguing and at times counterintuitive facts about IT professionals' strengths revealed in the new book Work Your Strengths: A Scientific Process to Identify Your Skills and Match Them to the Best Career for You (Amacom June 2010). Chuck Martin, CEO of NFI Research, along with co-authors Richard Guare and Peg Dawson (both psychologists), surveyed 171 IT professionals to identify the three most common cognitive skills strengths for IT executives, managers and employees. (They also surveyed professionals in other industries and functions to illustrate the cognitive skills an individual requires to be successful in a given functional role, be it sales, accounting, finance, marketing, HR or operations.)

The authors' surprising findings challenge the effectiveness of traditional career paths for IT professionals as well as the best ways to manage and train employees, regardless of their job function.

For example, Martin notes that the typical path to an executive role for an IT professional is to first move into a managerial role. The problem with that progression, he says, is that the IT professional doesn't necessarily possess the innate cognitive skills required to be successful as a manager. As a result, the IT professional is likely to fail as a manager, and thus, never make it to an executive-level position.

By contrast, if the IT employee was moved directly to the executive-level position, says Martin, he'd have a higher probability of success because two of the three core strengths required for success as an IT executive are the same as those required for success as an IT employee.

Martin's example shows how traditional career paths can do a disservice to IT professionals if they and their supervisors don't understand what their inherent strengths are, along with the cognitive skills required for success in a given role.

Nevertheless, Martin says it's ok to move IT employees into management positions as long as their employers realize that the two roles require different skill sets and that the employee may need extra support in the manager role to compensate for the skills he lacks for example, an organized assistant with strong planning skills (should there be funding for such a position, of course.)

Training won't necessarily help a star IT employee excel as a manager, says Martin, and the reason has to do with brain science. Martin says brain research has proven that certain cognitive or "executive skills" (so called because they help us execute tasks, not because they have anything to do with being an executive) are hardwired into our brains from birth. These executive skills strengths and weaknesses are innate and they can't be learned. Though we can strengthen the executive skills with which we're already endowed, there's little we can do about the executive skills in which we're weak.

"If someone is weak in time management, and you send them to 10 time management courses, they will still be weak in time management because it is unnatural for them to use the skills taught in that course," says Martin. "If you took someone who's strength was time management and you sent them to a course, they'd get better at it because those tools work the way their brain works."

The more effective approach to dealing with an employee's weakness, Martin notes, is to address the problem caused by the weakness, rather than the weakness itself. For example, if an IT employee is weak in the executive skill known as response inhibition, which is required to be a good IT manager, he blurts out anything without considering the consequences of his actions. Consequently, he embarrasses himself and everyone around him, including potentially, his manager. If his manager wants to avoid embarrassment in an important meeting, says Martin, she should tell the employee that he has to make eye contact with her before speaking at the meeting.

"By causing the person to look at something before speaking, that interrupts of the flow of what they were going to do and as a result they don't blurt things out," says Martin. He adds, "Employers hire based on a candidate's strengths, then they spend all their time trying to fix someone's weaknesses. It's better to simply focus on the strengths. You can't fix a weakness, but you can address a big problem caused by a weakness."

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