How To Lead IT Teams...And Why You May Not Be Succeeding
I've spent many years trying to work out exactly what makes a good IT Leader, and if I've learnt one thing in that time, it's this: good leadership in technology looks very different to good leadership in other disciplines. Understand it and get it right and you'll have plenty of willing followers, but get it wrong and you could end up with disastrous results.
There are a lot of different kinds of leadership and it's certainly true to say that the more traditional characteristics of a leader don't always apply in IT; it’s a knowledge-based business that attracts people who use their brain to problem-solve, so if you try to run an IT department like you'd run a military operation or a sales team then you'll quickly alienate people.
I've witnessed this happen a number of times, and have seen the results vary from leaders who just struggle to make headway to others who actually drive people away. I’ve worked in areas where a new leader joins with no prior experience of managing IT deliveries; I’ve seen one guy deliver the most Churchillian speech, rousing and feisty. He talked about 'passion'. He banged his fist on the desk and strode around the room with alpha-male body language, emphasizing his sheer bloody-minded determination to drive success into our deliveries. He talked about attitude and positivity, the veins practically bulging in his forehead, and yet the speech fell so flat with the technical teams as to be utterly counter-productive. The techies who heard this speech knew the challenges they were facing and they knew that this was a guy who hadn’t understood them.
What is different about leading IT teams?
Why was this? Why do technologists always respond badly to such appeals to emotion? Put simply, the technologist knows that emotion doesn't influence technology. Passion doesn't make a poorly-performing interface work faster, and banging fists on the desk doesn’t make lines of code suddenly work or your application scale better. Bluntly, the ones and zeros don't change based on emotion.
Whilst humans are emotional creatures, the successful technologist is invariably one who will works best where there is an absence of emotion, where clarity of thought is not clouded by the unpredictability of human will. This makes it very distinct from other roles, where personal traits such as attitude, body language and enthusiasm can directly influence the end result.
Imagine if your job was to coach people to win games of chess. Imagine the deep thought goes into a game of chess between two Grand Masters, and yet how quiet and unemotional it can appear to the observer; hours can pass without a single move. Imagine how much more important the quality of a chess move is than the quantity of them (and if you've ever seen code written by someone who was being measured on number of lines of code produced, you'll know exactly what I mean!) Positivity and passion count for exactly zero towards the outcome of the game.
Contrast this with a boxing coach for a world heavyweight champion whose job is to get his guy into the ring in a frenzy of passion and emotion, in a way that will keep him slugging away at the other guy for as long as physically possible after his body wants to give up. Now imagine we asked that boxing coach to instead coach people to win games of chess. Would you expect the skill-set to translate well? Would you expect that they should continue to operate in the same way with a chess Grand Master as they with the heavyweight boxing champ? A bit ridiculous, no?
And yet this is what we see in businesses all over the world, different disciplines of leadership from across businesses treated as completely interchangeable. As a technology leader I have never once believed that I could lead a military operation or turn around a failing sales department, and yet CEOs will regularly appoint technology leaders for their generic leadership skills when they have no prior experience of IT.
How can IT leaders succeed?
This is where the IT Leader needs to think carefully and creatively. If you're a schoolteacher and the kids in your class are working through some tricky maths equations, you will most likely attempt, firstly, to impart the required knowledge that they need, and then secondly, stand back and let them put into effect the thinking skills that they have learned. If they have learned, they will successfully solve the problems. If they haven't, you return to step one and re-state the thought processes that will allow them to do so and then let them loose again. Good technology leadership requires that you strike the right balance between ensuring your teams have the required skill-set and understand what's required of them, but then knowing when to step back to let them use their skills and understanding to problem-solve.
And this is the key for me: understanding that technologists are passionate individuals, usually driven by a life-long love for technology from early childhood; they are, however, also doing an intellect-based job that requires them to remove emotion and think clearly to achieve the best results. For someone aspiring to lead technical teams it's an interesting dichotomy, and one you need to recognise and respect to get the best out of your people.