Leadership Skills in Information Technology - Part 2
In Part One of this two-part article series, I focused on leadership skills in Information Technology (IT) and some of the general ways that leaders and followers can form a cohesive partnership. If you have led an IT team you know that it isn’t always easy to motivate this unique group of people.
In this second article, I focus specifically on ideas and creative ways to get IT teams excited about their work and get everyone working together.
Leading geeks can be an extraordinarily challenging and rewarding position. From my experience, many IT workers are less trusting than other workers, immediately assume their manager or leader knows less than they do (and they are usually right if we are looking merely at technical capability), and are sometimes more insecure in their positions and more protective of their work than individuals that work in other disciplines. IT workers can sniff out someone who isn’t passionate about technology in a way no other group I have worked with can. If you aren’t passionate about this work, you should lead a different type of group.
IT people tend to err on the side of protecting their work, believing somehow it leads to job security, and anyone else who touches their baby will “mess it up.” They tend to be more introverted than workers in other disciplines, which comes with the territory with workers who find pleasure sitting behind a computer screen for eight or more hours a day with little human interaction. Leaders and managers try to cross-train to develop contingency plans and “bench strength” so that if one team member is sick, injured or fired, work will continue. This may go against the innate grain of the IT worker.
Every discipline or subject area has specific traits that leaders and followers tend to possess. As an IT leader, former VP and Director of IT, I have run into some amazing leaders that I still aspire to emulate, and some that left much to be desired, perhaps thinking they were leaders when their actions were more like those of managers.
I have noticed a few trends when leading geeks. Showing that you respect their authority and their knowledge base goes a long way to establishing trust. Explaining your position and waiting a few days for buy in instead of demanding an immediate course of action results in stronger alliances and a greater chance of success. Learning what your specific team finds is team building is important. Finding out what motivates each individual team member, paying attention and then incorporating it into rewards systems is beneficial and often yields positive results.
A course I teach at a university, called Managing Geeks, is all about how managing IT folks is different than other disciplines. Team members are often highly possessive over their work, don’t take well to criticism, and are motivated by things that seem quite absurd to other functional-area employees, like swear jars and pizza and beer lunches. They have niche work, often do not have degrees, and may not aspire to move up within the company or to take on a managerial role - tools leaders in other disciplines can have ready to use as motivational tools.
The Odd Bunch
IT leaders can gain followers by being genuine in their love of technology. IT workers may be motivated by training more than pay, and may like seeing the list of certifications grow on their resume more so than even their paychecks. They may be more excited by an orange-throwing contest in the hallway than company awards. They can be an odd bunch, but so much fun to lead, particularly when you are a nerd yourself.
My personal style is caring, nurturing, but direct and demanding with frequent (and possibly pathetic) attempts at humor and light-heartedness. I expect that my team will work together, that they will be direct and honest with me, and that they will trust that I will always have their backs. I have “taken one for the team” on more than one occasion, and if you have a track record of doing that, your followers are more likely to have your back, too. (That is something that makes not only for teams that can achieve greatness, but great friends long after the team doesn’t exist anymore.)
A Little Dissent Can Be Good
When you come in to work at a company, you can rest assured they have Googled you and they know what others have said about your personality and method. It’s never been my style to cram my thought process or opinions down the throats of those on my team, but to let them decide on their own if they buy into my way of thinking or not. If they don’t, well, a little dissent can be good. The best leaders I have worked with think through how to truly solve problems, not just how to bury them so no one knew they were there. They are confrontational when necessary and let things just be when it made sense to do so.
For those of us who have managed and led teams, there is some instinctual alien within us that awakens when we know a “team needs us” or that we can do some good for some people who really deserve better. Watching a group of people that want to contribute be demotivated routinely by bad leaders makes us cringe. The former IT leader at the school I refer to in the first article told his team, “Why are you in a hurry? We get paid the same if we do or don’t do the work.” How’s that for motivation?!
Using social media platforms, I’ve asked thousands of others what they thought about leadership, specifically related to information technology. Most responded about communication and being provocative in thought, adding humor to conversations, and being approachable. From my experience, if you are naturally funny, it’s easy to bring that into the workplace. Your style of leadership will probably appeal to many of those who are working with you. Competence matters, and the ability to clearly articulate ideas matters.
Empowering others to do what they are good at but still be held accountable to the direction and vision of the organization is important, as is follow-through with those whom you are leading. If you say you will do something for them, give 100 percent of your effort and if you fail, honestly and candidly tell them why. This instills vital trust that is such a crucial part of the team-building process which you are leading. Ultimately if you show that you will advance the IT cause with senior executives, you have a great chance of developing a strong loyalty and ability to lead the team.
What has your experience been working with IT teams? Comment to me and others in the box below so we can learn from your ideas.
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