Secrets to Managing Techies

Secrets to Managing Techies

IT employees are different. Here’s how to lead them.

If you want to be a better leader of your IT staff, then it’s best not to rely on that staple of leadership books, the profiles of military leaders such as Attila the Hun, George Patton or Colin Powell. IT employees don’t respond well to a leadership style based on power and control. That’s because IT work — programming, systems analysis, troubleshooting and the like — is centred on individual problem-solving that can’t be directed from above.

Since IT work is inherently creative, effective leadership of IT workers means facilitating work that is often chaotic and goals that are rife with ambiguities. The context of leading an IT organisation includes aligning IT projects with business strategy, conveying direction to IT employees that’s consistent with that strategy, and keeping IT employees focused on end- user needs.

Some big-picture leadership skills, such as communication, vision and negotiation, are the same whether one is a CEO or a CIO, says Paul Glen, author of the recent book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology. “At its heart, leadership is all about relationships with people,” he says.

But IT leadership skills diverge into unique territory when CIOs are immersed in the day-to-day operations of an IT department. They must motivate IT workers who thrive on challenges and aren’t primarily driven by monetary carrots or perks, and who love technology but sometimes need to be pushed to apply it in ways that help others do their jobs. What’s more, many CIOs (who still tend to come up through the IT ranks) make the mistake of focusing on technology rather than employees, Glen says.

No wonder that in a recent CIO (US) survey, underlings don’t give CIOs high marks for leadership. Only about half of the respondents to the “What Do You Think of the CIO?” survey said their CIOs foster a team environment, use praise and constructive feedback to motivate, and delegate effectively. Here’s how to get on the right side of that divide.

Embrace Your Inner Techie

They might bristle at stereotypes, but IT employees do share certain tendencies that set them apart from workers in sales, finance and manufacturing. As creative problem-solvers, IT staffers get absorbed in whatever projects they are working on, often at the expense of relating to colleagues outside of IT. As technology aficionados, IT employees sometimes don’t have much patience with people who don’t share their enthusiasm for all things technical. And when it comes to organisational politics and Machiavellian manoeuvres, most IT people couldn’t be bothered. For their part, employees outside of IT may not appreciate the nature of IT work, so CIOs need to serve as a bridge between disparate groups.

Grasp the traits that make IT employees tick to provide them with direction, motivation and goals. Kevin Orr, a former CIO for the Army hospital at Fort Rucker in Alabama, finds parallels between IT workers and artists. “IT people tend to work in tremendous spurts interspersed with dry spells,” he says. Currently a systems engineer at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Orr says it’s essential that CIOs provide IT employees with clear guidelines on tasks and communicate overall goals. But when it comes to the day-to-day work, CIOs need to let IT employees pace themselves as long as quality and deadlines aren’t compromised. Yet even CIOs who enjoy an insight into the IT mind worthy of Freud won’t get far if they lack credibility and respect from their staffs. That’s where technical knowledge comes in.

As far as leadership goes, “the major difference in being a CIO compared to a CEO is that IT people have little tolerance for anyone who doesn’t understand what they do”, says Steven Steinbrecher, former CIO of Contra Costa County in California. “If they think you are technology-stupid and they can buffalo you, they will.” Steinbrecher, who retired in July after nearly 30 years in IT, says that in every CIO job he’s had, at least one employee showed up at his office within the first few weeks to test his knowledge.

Jeff Chasney, executive vice president and CIO of CKE Restaurants, sounds a similar note. “Credibility is the key separating effective leaders from less effective ones,” he says. “If you have a baseline of knowledge, if you question IT employees on their assumptions, they’ll develop a deep appreciation for you.”

The depth required for a CIO’s technical knowledge depends to a great extent on the size of the organisation. When complemented by a CTO, CIOs can succeed with less technical acumen as long as they understand how IT work gets done. At bottom, “the IT staff needs to know that the individual leading the organisation, setting the strategic direction and working with customers is someone who understands what it takes to make IT happen”, says Terese Butler, the deputy director of IT at California’s Employment Development Department.

A high-level understanding of technology is essential for another reason as well: the CIO’s role of intermediary between the IT group and business units. Techies may think the world revolves around technology, but it’s the CIO’s job to make sure technology takes a back seat to business needs. CIOs should constantly hammer this message home in a way that doesn’t ruffle any IT employees’ feathers. George Lin, vice president and CIO at Documentum, a provider of content management software, keeps business needs at the forefront by banning technology talk with his IT employees. “I never talk technology to my own people,” he says, opting instead to “talk about how their work is related to the business”.

To discourage conversations focused on technology, Lin demands that his 75 IT staffers first understand the business. In tackling a systems integration project, for example, Lin requires IT folks to first draw out the entire business process flow involved in the project before they can focus their attention on specific EAI tools.

Know Where IT Should Go

When it comes to motivating IT workers, a hands-off philosophy works best. “If you know how to work with techies, they are the easiest kind of employees to motivate,” says Chasney. “They don’t need cushy perks, personal recognition or bonuses; they thrive on creatively solving problems.” When CKE Restaurants recently launched a project to retrofit DOS-based software onto new Windows-based point-of-sale hardware, Chasney challenged his team to come up with a way to do it without cracking the existing code, an approach that required heavy-duty technical wrangling. By encouraging his people to look at the problem in a different light, they came up with a simple, elegant solution in two days. Chasney’s lesson: Don’t tell IT people how to solve a problem. Plant an idea of where you want them to go, give them the resources they need, and let them find their own path to the solution.

One ongoing leadership challenge for CIOs is communicating how IT contributes to the business. This isn’t only about establishing ROI (although that’s always a bugbear); it’s about boosting the morale of IT employees by showing them how their work aids and abets business performance. “Evaluating and recognising our contribution is tough in IT because we’re a couple of steps removed from the end result,” says Tim Buckley, managing director of IT at financial services company The Vanguard Group. With a typical project lasting 12 to 18 months, IT employees don’t always see how their work pays off. That’s a problem when the IT department itself is judged on how effectively it supports the business. CIOs have to highlight IT’s contributions to both employees and business users. “It comes down to communicating overall organisational goals and showing employees what their roles are in [fulfilling] those,” says Butler. To showcase the role of IT to the business side at California’s Employment Development Department, she has invited developers to give project demos to execs, making sure to emphasise how the project improves productivity.

IT staffers place great value in ongoing training, but typically it’s technical updates they want, not management training. Ideally, your workers should develop skills that build professionalism in the IT group and align with the company’s needs. At Documentum, where the business side puts a premium on soft skills such as customer service and negotiation techniques, Lin works with the HR department to provide IT people with training in those areas. “Without the soft skills, IT people won’t be very successful working with our internal customers,” Lin says.

The CIO’s ultimate role is to harness technology for the organisation’s best use. The most successful CIOs know what motivates their staffs and how to lead them toward success.


Four Essentials for Leading Techies

In his book - Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology, self-described geek and consultant Paul Glen identifies four actions indispensable for CIOs who hope to lead IT staffers.

  • Motivate the ranks. Avoid incentives designed to promote certain behaviour (for example, staff the help desk 12 hours a day) and concentrate instead on creating conditions (such as establishing career paths and setting achievable, measurable goals) under which motivation can develop.
  • Facilitate teamwork. IT staffers shouldn’t work in isolation. It’s your job to encourage and coordinate the free flow of ideas and activities among the various IT teams.
  • Publicise achievements. Let the business side know exactly how IT contributes to the strategic goals of the organisation.
  • Provide clarity. So that IT employees aren’t working in the dark, explain the goals of your department, highlight project priorities and outline individual responsibilities.

The Loyalty Lag

by Edward Prewit

Ten Ways to Develop the Truly Loyal Employee

Employees who stay put should not be confused with those who stay loyal, according to a new, comprehensive study of worker attitudes in business, nonprofits and government organisations. Walker Information, a research company specialising in loyalty and satisfaction measurements, released a workplace loyalty report in September. The study distinguishes the “truly loyal” employees from those who stick around only until a better job comes along or those workers who feel trapped in their jobs.

Only the truly loyal workers will go the extra mile to delight customers and are highly motivated in their work. These employees also would resist offers of other jobs and would recommend their companies to potential employees. Too bad they’re so scarce. Only 30 per cent of survey respondents met the criteria. Even so, Marc Drizin, a vice president at Walker and the company’s loyalty specialist, finds this percentage surprisingly high. His explanation is that employees who have lasted through retrenchments sometimes feel gratitude and obligation toward their companies.

On the other side of the coin, 34 per cent of respondents were classified as “high risk” (meaning they were neither committed to their work nor planning to stay with the company for the next two years), and another 31 per cent qualified as “trapped” (not attached to their work or employer but without prospects for other jobs). So what management actions produce the truly loyal employee?

Walker measured the attributes of the truly loyal along two dimensions: experiences and attitudes. When it comes to employees’ personal experiences of their workplaces, the top five drivers of loyalty are:

  • Care and concern that the employer shows for workers — displayed by working conditions, policies and style of management.
  • Fairness of pay and evaluations.
  • Employees’ feelings of accomplishment in their work.
  • Satisfaction with daily activities.
  • Management appreciation for employees’ ideas and input.

Regarding employees’ attitudes about their work and workplaces, the top five drivers of loyalty are:

  • An employee-focused atmosphere in the office — demonstrated by a clear priority put on staffers.
  • Development opportunities — evinced by training.
  • The quality of the employee’s job.
  • The corporate brand — that is, how the employee feels about it.
  • Personal sacrifice required for the job — that is, the so-called work-life balance.


by Susan Cramm

Five ways to regain your focus — and retain your job

You are in a funk. Your work has turned into a grind, your calendar is out of control, and issues are growing into problems. The focus and energy that you once had are dissipating. People in your organisation have noticed — they describe you as distracted, disengaged and tense. You are the missing-in-action CIO — present in body but not in mind and spirit.

You are not alone. Ninety per cent of professionals are living a less than purposeful existence — either in a state of disengagement, distraction or procrastination — according to Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal, authors of “Beware the Busy Manager” (Harvard Business Review, February 2002). What state you find yourself in, say the authors, depends on the relative levels of two factors: focus, which is “the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion”, and energy, defined as “vigour that is fuelled by intense personal commitment”.

Most likely, you started off in your current position with a strong sense of purpose and the ability to see problems and solutions in stark relief. You defined and tackled your laser-sharp agenda with limitless energy and enthusiasm. But as time passed, you lost interest or ran into obstacles or got overloaded and joined the suffering 90 per cent.

Great leaders understand how to renew their leadership agenda. They have the self-awareness and self-discipline to identify and overcome their malaise. Many of us have used job-hopping as a primary means of leadership renewal. Although crude (in that it does not force you to face the root causes of your leadership malaise), it is effective — as long as there is a strong job market and you are a hot commodity. Now more than ever, given the weak economy and ageing demographic, the ability to renew your focus and energy and regain your purposeful footing is important. If you are ready to take back your job, here’s what you should do.

Make the time. It should come as no surprise to learn that purposeful leaders schedule time on their calendars to think and reflect. Many hectic managers find this task almost impossible and require outside assistance from a trusted adviser to help them do calendar analysis and surgery. Since your schedule consists primarily of meetings, the easiest way to make time is to reduce the frequency and duration of meetings (try saying: “When someone asks for one hour, they get half an hour”), eliminate certain meetings (“I don’t meet with vendors”) and activities (“My assistant answers my phone and reviews e-mails” or “I read e-mails and check voice mail once a day”), and delegate project work that you have picked up along the way.

Open your eyes. Balanced feedback will motivate and sharpen your focus and build your commitment on the issues and opportunities that need to be addressed. Go regularly to the front lines of your organisation (where your employees interact with their customers and suppliers) to assess your positioning and identify opportunities around shareholder value, customer service and cost-effectiveness.

Get others involved. Leaders aren’t expected to have all the answers, and leadership is not a solitary pursuit. A collaborative process of defining goals, strategies, priorities and tactics will strengthen commitment, increase your influence and energise everyone involved. In addition, if you are risk-averse, sharing priorities and responsibilities will go a long way to quiet your fears about the career impact of setbacks and failures.

Express yourself. Someone once said, it is easier to maintain your focus and energy if your career expresses who you are rather than what you do. Look at a CIO who is an adrenaline junkie (with hobbies like car racing, flying and downhill skiing). The CIO role is going to drive him crazy unless he figures out a way to keep initiatives on a fast cycle time and lets people with a longer attention span run operations.

Work with a net. If the prospect of losing your job makes you queasy, you need a safety net that gives you the freedom to define your leadership focus and approach. Some of you are blessed with a mental safety net (your outlook is that “everything is going to be OK”), while the rest need something more tangible — safety nets that ensure that your financial needs will be met. There’s nothing like money in the bank and the ability to earn a living as a contractor or consultant to give you the courage to take risks, make hard decisions and negotiate effectively.

The leadership renewal process I’ve outlined here requires that you leave your “old” job, assess your effectiveness, and replace yourself with a more effective successor. Do yourself and your organisation a favour: Mentally fire yourself today and walk in tomorrow like it’s your first day on the job.

Reader Q&A

Susan Cramm answers questions on “The MIA CIO”

Q: Your article describes my situation perfectly. I am a CIO for a very successful financial services company. My job is very challenging, rewarding and boring. I have built a great working relationship with my boss (the CEO) and other executives. However, I am finding myself losing more interest day after day. I want to quit my job altogether and join a small start-up where I can expand my responsibility over other areas such as sales and marketing, product development, and operations. Do I exhibit typical signs of burnout, or am I just going through a midlife, midcareer crisis?

A: Don’t ignore your current feelings, but don’t change for change’s sake. Base any actions on insights on your skills, knowledge, talents, motivators, likes and dislikes, and practical considerations regarding financial security, prior experience, networking and reputation. I am currently working with a client who wants a change but is security-minded given his family responsibilities. We have identified his career goal and opportunities within his current company that will help move him forward.

Q: A couple of things are missing from your list of what to do. A focus on family and friends is more important than spending all my energy at work. Those are the true lasting relationships. It’s there that I gain my energy to work. My family members also help me focus on work because of the importance of supporting them. Also, you neglected outside interests; hobbies, sports and so on are how people recharge themselves. Life isn’t all about work.

A: Congratulations! It sounds to me like you are a proud member of the purposeful 10 per cent. In your case, you express yourself by ensuring that your work supports your desire to nurture and support your family and foster relationships. My guess is that your focus on relationships is something that is part of your personal DNA and that you are able to express it on a day-to-day basis in your job. It’s true that life isn’t all about work. It’s also true that if you are spending 10 hours a day doing things that don’t feed your soul, you will ultimately join the suffering 90 per cent.

Q: Most of us are disengaged, distracted or procrastinating. Can anybody really avoid that? I don’t know anyone in that 10 per cent group.

A: It is true that the purposeful 10 per cent are the enviable minority. Regaining purposeful footing is difficult because the catalyst for change must be created internally. The renewal process requires the self-awareness to identify the need for change, the self-discipline to work through the discovery process, and the self-confidence to put your insights into action.

Cramm is president of California-based Valuedance, an executive coaching firm

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