Becoming an IT Leader: Theory vs. Practice

IT leaders have tough jobs. They’re expected to maintain the technology required to support daily business operations; introduce new forms of technology that deliver competitive business advantage; spend as little money as possible; keep their teams happy and productive; establish close working relationships with their business partners; and work collaboratively with an extended ecosystem of external suppliers and vendors. On a good day, an IT leader feels like the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, successfully coordinating activities that address several of these objectives simultaneously. On a bad day, an IT leader can be easily overwhelmed and discouraged by the breadth of their responsibilities and end up feeling like the shock absorber on a Mack truck!

There are many research analysts and consultants who espouse theories about the way that IT is supposed to work within a commercial enterprise. Unfortunately, many of these individuals have never personally functioned in the roles of the leaders they are advising, or their experience in such roles is dated.

As a seven-time CIO who has personally observed the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of IT management, I fully empathize with the trials and tribulations of IT leaders. At Oktane17, I presented a coaching session for IT managers, sharing some of the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years. If you want to watch the full video, you can do so here. Otherwise, here are a few key takeaways that may help you to think more strategically about your own career.

Establish financial credibility Most business executives remain mystified about why IT costs so much. They rarely have insight into the breadth of technologies that are required to support enterprise-wide business operations and end up wondering why IT groups spend so much money. Furthermore, they don’t have the time to develop such understanding. While it’s easy to become frustrated by their lack of understanding and chronic challenges regarding IT spending, let’s face it – most members of an IT management team don’t fully understand where all the money goes either, and that’s actually a bigger problem.

IT leaders frequently mistake questions regarding IT spending as education requests from their business partners. More often than not such questions are credibility tests. Business leaders outside IT don’t want to help run the IT function – they have full time jobs of their own to do! But they do want to be assured that IT leaders are being good stewards of their company’s resources and are spending money to address genuine business needs and requirements.

IT leaders can demonstrate their financial credibility in many ways such as associating costs with key activities (e.g. information security) or functions (e.g. manufacturing); external benchmarking of specific activities (e.g. service desk or data center operations); or obtaining competitive bids from suppliers and vendors when contracts come up for renewal. Business leaders are frequently unaware of the mix of full time employees, contractors, interns, offshore resources and managed service providers that IT employs to source the skills that are needed to support routine operations as well as new business initiatives. IT leaders need to be able to clearly explain the rationale for using these various resource pools and the cost consequences of maintaining such a complex portfolio of labor skills.

The best advice of all is to not wait to be asked about financial considerations but to bring them up proactively in your dealings with business partners. Such conversations send a subliminal message to your partners that you are truly ‘running IT like a business’!

Manage your business relationships Let’s face it: business runs on relationships. Too many IT leaders interact with their business partners solely on an as-needed basis. Consequently, they end up with superficial transactional relationships that are not all that useful when they need support for new IT initiatives or forgiveness for major IT mistakes.

Successful business relationships are two dimensional in nature. One dimension is social. Ideally you want your business partners to like you! That simply means that they don’t shudder or freeze up when they are trapped in a one-on-one conversation with you. Most people openly broadcast their outside-of-work interests such as their hobbies, their kids’ sports, the schools they attended, their most recent vacations, etc. These interests provide valuable cues that you can use to develop effective social relationships.

Social relationships will only take you only so far, however. Your business partners need to respect you as well and they need to respect you for your business knowledge and insight. A common trait of all successful IT leaders is a keen, persistent interest in how their company’s business model functions in practice. Successful leaders proactively seek opportunities to travel with business execs and participate in their meetings. Direct interactions of this nature provide deeper insight into the challenges and opportunities confronting their business partners and will earn them the personal respect of their partners as well.

Remember: It’s you and your team IT groups have a nasty habit of blaming their own shortcomings on external factors such as limited budgets, conflicting business demands, lack of business sponsorship, regulatory burdens, accumulated technical debt, etc. Blame games undermine staff morale and erode staff productivity. Taken to an extreme, they can produce a toxic culture within IT that business colleagues go out of their way to avoid.

Leaders need to attack and eliminate the blame games going on within their organizations. They can do this in several concrete ways that they control directly.

The first is to clearly prioritize the projects, tasks and activities you’re asking your team to perform. IT professionals are routinely subjected to a daily barrage of production support issues, sustaining engineering tasks and business project assignments – not to mention personal requests from friends in the business when they (the friends) can’t get the Service Desk to respond to their requests. Too many IT organizations leave it up to individual staff members to sort through these conflicting demands when that is clearly management’s job. Clarity around work priorities is important in giving every member of your team a sense of purpose which should ultimately translate into a sense of accomplishment.

The second way in which organizations can combat the blame game is to bust up the bureaucracy that creeps into day-to-day IT operations. Rubber stamp approval processes, institutionalized review meetings, documented handoffs of work assignments among multiple IT teams, etc. can all contribute to a bureaucratic cancer that reduces staff morale and frustrates IT’s business clients. IT bureaucracy is like the dandelions in your front yard – they keep coming back and need to be continually eradicated!

Finally, the third way in which leaders can overcome the blame game is by providing direct and timely performance feedback to individual staff members. Individuals need to realize that they are active participants in the problems that are undercutting the effectiveness of the organization as well. Staff members are obsessively interested in their personal career development and frankly, the best way to provide such development is to provide on-the-spot feedback on an individual’s performance. To be developmental, performance feedback is best delivered when’ the sweat is still on someone’s brow’. Annual reviews are a poor substitute for immediate feedback and rarely have much of a sustained effect on an individual’s future performance.

Test your IQ at the end of every year Leaders who are concerned about their own career development should rate their management IQ on an annual basis. The holiday season is the perfect time for such self-reflection. I suggest rating your progress (or lack thereof) along the following three dimensions:

  • Your Technology IQ: Have you been exposed to new forms or technology or mastered new technology methods or practices over the past year?
  • Your Business IQ: Have you learned something new about the business processes employed within your company? Has your business knowledge and insight expanded as a result of the projects or assignments you worked on over the past year?
  • Your People Management IQ: Have you been given the opportunity to work with a new group of people? Perhaps you’ve led a virtual team? Perhaps you’ve managed offshore work groups or individuals in different time zones or cultures? Perhaps you were asked to lead a team that had more executive visibility than you have in the past? All of these types of experiences can expand your people management IQ.

Rate yourself on each of these dimensions as to whether your IQ expanded, stayed the same or possibly eroded during the past year. Stick the results in your sock drawer and pull them our during the next holiday season. If your aggregate IQ ratings aren’t increasing year over year, then it’s time to seek a new role – whether it’s in your current company or elsewhere!