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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

What is Leadership?

Leadership is a frustrating concept. Browse through any bookstore and you will see more titles on leadership than on most other topics in the business section. Obviously, people feel the need to learn more about leadership; they feel inadequate in the role of leader. On the other hand, many of these leadership books offer advice that is either trite, mystical, or has nothing to do with real leadership. How often have you picked up a book, read it, and then said, "Sounds great, but what am I supposed to DO?"

We believe leadership is the result of using one's role and ability to motivate and influence. Successful leadership involves managing one's self and relationships to move toward a specific business goal. We wrote this book to help IT people grow their skills, knowledge, and confidence to develop leadership in a real, practical IT context. Simply put, we'll help you avoid real horror stories like these:

  • An IT person was laid off through a text message on his beeper while attending a large international conference in the same city as his own office.

  • A woman asked for leadership advice after she was abruptly given the job of her boss, who committed suicide. She was not given any directions, training, or coaching.

  • A five-year SAP project for a global pharmaceutical company has logged two deaths from heart attacks, large turnover rates, and illnesses.

  • A woman hired by a software firm discovered that she could no longer work with the technical people on her team because they refused to communicate with her. Ironically, she was hired so that her communication skills would rub off on them. Her comment: "Is there any place in IT that I'll be able to work all of my skills?"

Exercise: Zoning in on Competencies

Take a moment and write a brief definition of IT leadership. List at least 10 competencies you'd expect from a great IT leader. Now, from those 10 competencies, select the three you consider most critical.

The IT leadership competencies described in this book were developed through two different research projects. The first, email-based effort asked 3,000 IT professionals to identify the top 10 competencies for IT leaders, and then asked them to choose the top three from the 10 most frequently identified choices. The second project involved an advisory panel of CIOs, IT middle managers, IT consultants, and IT researchers. The competencies these research efforts identified provide the basis for the chapters that follow. In addition, the advisory panel shared the following observations:

  • "With speed so important, IT leaders have to be much more decisive when addressing rapid changes to technology and business drivers. They need to be more technically savvy and must be able to lead complex, diverse organizations."

  • "IT leaders must thrive on the excitement and intrigue of the world of technology, dealing with people at all levels of the organization, planning for change (a contradiction for sure), leveraging the critical nature of technology for business, dealing with 'wild and crazy' users and vendors, being underappreciated, and almost always being blamed as the cause of any major mess-ups."

  • "IT leadership tends to touch all aspects of the business, which makes the CIO leadership positions similar to CEO or COO in their breadth. Success as an IT leader is neither all strategic nor all operational. The true leaders of the IT industry have a strong focus in both areas and can move between the 60,000-foot level and the 100-foot level. The need for a unique combination of people skills and technology skills is unlike other leadership positions in other business areas."

One panel member recalled:

"In the mid-60s, while working for a start-up IT venture, the general perception was that a 'manager is a manager is a manager,' and that someone who managed a light bulb factory could manage software development. That perception still exists in some organizations, but it's gradually becoming more widely appreciated that IT leadership is at least somewhat different than 'general' leadership.

"One difference has to do with the nature of the product of an IT organization. One of the most obvious differences has to do with the nature of 'tradeoffs' between schedule/deadline, budget, personnel resources, functionality, and quality when estimating a project. Over and over again I've seen non-IT-aware senior managers exclaim, 'Look, it's absolutely imperative that we have this new IT dot-com system finished in half the time you've estimated. So I'll give you twice as many people as you asked for and everything will be fine, right?'

"The other difference has to do with the nature of the work being performed. IT people are doing intellectual work, the ultimate result of which will be a bunch of invisible bits inside a computer. There are lots of other professions involving intellectual effort, but most of them result in a physical, tangible artifact. An external observer, such as the manager leading the effort, can look at the artifact at various stages throughout the project and derive a gut estimate of the degree of completion. It's harder to do that with software projects. Finally, software is one of the few professions where the 'assets' of the organization can walk out of the office at 5:00 p.m. with no guarantee that they'll return. The assets are not 'fixed.' Thus, the manager who leads by intimidation, fear, and bullying runs the risk that the entire project team will walk out."

Consider the differences between IT and other leadership disciplines:

  • IT processes are unique to IT and the leadership must drive process improvement, including solution development, security, contingency planning, project management, and capacity planning.

  • Strongly technical IT people tend to follow a certain behavioral model. Certainly, there are many exceptions, but a successful technical person is often highly theoretical, good at detail work, comfortable working alone, driven by internal rules, and tolerant of conflict. This sets the stage for specific relationship norms and challenges between an IT leader and her team.

  • The "why" of a business, organization, or team is critical for IT project prioritization. This is true in all areas of life and business, and is not unique to IT. However, IT organizations tend to not have shared vision and values, and are often unaware or removed from the vision of the overall enterprise. There may be visions and values on a sign on the wall, but IT troops typically find it difficult to internalize them.

In general, the tougher challenges of leading IT people are no different than those of leading other professionals. Getting the best out of people and having them work with each other to achieve a common goal requires the same skills whether you're leading a sales team or a technology group. The critical leadership skills cut across all parts of an organization. However, IT practitioners are a unique group of individuals with preferences and behaviors that may be different than those of other business professionals.

  • IT leadership deals with a unique group of highly intelligent, technical people immersed in the innate unpredictability and chaos of technology.

  • A great IT leader knows how to leverage the strengths she already has, and to surround herself with others to fill in the gaps. A great IT leader realizes that each of her people is unique, so she coaches them to leverage their own strengths as well. Therefore, IT leadership is about releasing the potential that is already there.

  • Leadership development is a paradox. It must ultimately be practical and something that an IT leader can immediately do for others. However, to be able to "do," leaders must find quiet time to develop self-understanding. Leadership includes skills, knowledge, technique, and personal spirit.

In each chapter, you will read about basic concepts and techniques associated with each of the 10 competencies. The words SALT, SULPHUR, and MERCURY refer to the alchemy metaphor, which we'll describe in the next section. Each chapter will also describe intermediate and advanced techniques and advise when to use them. If a particular competency is a special challenge for you, use the intermediate and advanced techniques for future growth (or hire someone with that skill).

Finally, in each chapter you will be encouraged to do some journaling. While that process may seem frivolous and easy to skip, failing to journal may be surprisingly costly. If you truly want to achieve IT leadership success, pause briefly at these points and think about what you would like to accomplish. After all, you cannot achieve goals that you cannot quantify.

Next, you'll learn a little about alchemy, and why we chose this metaphor. We'll then give you the opportunity to assess yourself as a baseline using the 10 IT leadership competencies. Finally, we'll map out the chapters so that you can design a personal strategy for growing your IT leadership capacity.

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