Leadership in IT: It's Not About Technology

Sep 9, 2009

John Glowacki Jr.

Before considering any strategic moves, one must take a hard look at your company’s current state of affairs. Although we should continually be cognizant of current activities, it is important to truly step back, on occasion, and really assess the state of the organization.

In doing these occasional assessments, I continue to find that the most important issues are leadership opportunities available to us, which if ignored can doom initiatives large or small.

The chief technology officer (CTO) must align technology and related issues to the major business objectives, which become fairly complex in a Fortune 500 company. So why should a CTO be so interested in leadership issues? Because making process and technology work requires informed, motivated and skilled people to proactively manage and execute the initiatives and operations of the business, be they technical or otherwise. In the end, the real issues always come down to people. People are not as interchangeable as management would often like them; they have their individual agendas and limitations, all of which must be balanced up and down the organizational ranks in order for the organization to succeed.

Look at any significant technical project or service being delivered. Does it have 10 “technical” people on it? 30? 300? That’s 10, 30 or 300 potential leadership opportunities (or failures) that will impact the success of the project. If you are in a highly matrixed organization, as most of us are, you then have the implications of the various management elements under which these technical people are aligned. Again, these relationships and expectations need to be managed and in many cases they are more about leadership than management skills.

There can be a tendency to rely on process to minimize the leadership challenges. Having the right processes can provide a great deal of value, but it’s always a balance: too much process and you become sluggish, too little and it’s the “Wild West,” where good results are not repeatable. Processes present opportunities for leadership: True leaders will look outside the organization for the best new way to do something. It is safe to say that CSC typically learns at least one better process or procedure during every large account we take on. You cannot legislate common sense and good organizational discipline, no matter how much process you use. The willingness to leverage from outside your organization is another component of leadership.

One of my favorite Jack Welch-isms really synopsizes my view, in large part, on leadership. During his time at GE, Jack’s approach to evaluating people was based on their demonstrating GE’s values and making their numbers (the actual performance metrics by which one was measured). He found that some people have the values and made their numbers. These are your A players; hold them close, nurture them and promote them. Others do not have the values and do not make their numbers. As Jack says, “This is an easy one — shoot ’em.”

Values and trust

Another group has the values but does not make their numbers. You need to give these people a second or third chance; they can be trained to make their numbers. They have your values, which is most important, because integrity and trust are the critical requirements. Conversely, people who are intentionally unethical generally do not fix this issue themselves; they will need to be fixed by a manager. You probably won’t even know this situation exists unless you are interacting with your direct reports’ subordinates on a regular basis. Inconsistent behavior or mistaken impressions people have of you can cause them to not trust you, even though you are operating with the best of intentions. HR programs, e.g., 360 reviews, can help overcome this issue.

And then there are the employees who do not have the values but do make their numbers. These are the ones who hide in bureaucracies and who will suck the life (and productivity) out of your organization. You have to spend the extra effort to find them. It does not matter how smart or capable someone is; if they do not demonstrate your values (which may be indicated through HR complaints, or difficulty working with others, as well as more obvious indicators) then they are hurting the integrity and productivity of your organization. People that directly or indirectly work for these individuals will be less productive, as they are spending time trying to protect themselves. This leads to indecisiveness, lack of action and silos of communication.

Leaders should also know when and how to innovate. If your job is to align technology with your company’s business strategy, you have to adapt evolving technologies to business strategies that shift in response to changing markets. Adapting means making many small changes and the occasional big changes, called “innovations.” If you don’t think innovation is about leadership, consider Machiavelli’s observation: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to initiate a new order of things. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system, and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one.”

As we balance the issues of people, process and technology, people appear to be only one-third of the framework, but the value of leadership makes them the dominant factor and force multiplier in the success of the organization. To meet organizational objectives, it is imperative to promote an informed force of people whose leaders have motivated them to do what is necessary to be successful and who trust those leaders to operate in their best interests. This, to me, is a differentiator for success.

John A. Glowacki Jr., is CSC’s chief technology officer.

Tags: IT management, IT culture, leadership, CSC, Glowacki,

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