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More technology leadership prerequisites

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Leadership. The word is inspiring. Even those who run away from decisions as if they were rabid wolverines utter it in reverential tones.

Leadership, for the benefit of those who haven’t read Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World, is the art of getting others to follow, and requires competence at eight tasks: Setting direction, making decisions, staffing, delegating, motivating, managing team dynamics, establishing culture, and communicating (which consists of four sub-tasks — listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating).

The subject is technology leadership — how IT can identify promising new technologies, incubate them, and incorporate them into how we do business around here. It’s technology leadership whether the technologies are new and emerging or just haven’t been put to use in the business IT supports.

But it’s always about leadership, which is to say getting the rest of the company to follow — not a traditional role for mainstream IT management, which is often so fearful someone will accuse it of squandering the company’s scarce financial resources on technology for technology’s sake that suggesting the company explore something new, different, and potentially useful is as intimidating as proposing a hefty assessment to pay for roof replacement at a townhouse owners association meeting.

So the starting point for technology leadership mirrors the first message in Leading IT, which is, it’s okay to lead. Not only is it okay, the business leaders I talk to are, for the most part, hungry for it. They want to have conversations about how they can use information technology to (1) get their work out the door more effectively; and (2) do something entirely new, different, innovative, and most important, profitable. Sadly, as discussed last week, few in IT are even equipped to have these conversations.

To be fair, plenty of companies, and I’m including many of those who undertake formal strategic planning exercises, aren’t equipped for them either. Their strategic plans are tepid, fearful things. These companies don’t think in terms of gaining marketplace advantage, beating the competition … you know, how to grow. Technology leadership can’t happen in these companies because no leadership can happen in these companies.

When decisions are rooted in fear, the outcome is stasis or retreat, not innovation and progress. If you lead IT in an environment like this, unless you’re close to retirement and just coasting along your best move is to find a better place to ply your trade.

Or, your company might be poised to become an aggressive leader in your industry. Its executives might want to try something more exciting and competitive than a stock buyback. They just don’t have better ideas about how to invest the company’s spare cash. All it might take is the suggestion from you that (for example) adding intelligence to the company’s products might make them more desirable.

(Speaking of stock buybacks, an irrelevant question: If a company buys back enough of its own stock, can it become autonomous … self-owned? As corporations are people too, perhaps we should encourage this. It would be equivalent to Roman slaves earning enough to buy their freedom. I look forward to your irrelevant answers.)

So … last week started a list of factors that must be in place if IT can be successful in providing technology leadership:

  • Awareness: If you don’t know it exists you can’t recommend it.
  • Relationships. If they don’t know and trust you, they won’t be open to your ideas.
  • Astuteness. If you can’t envision the new thing in practical, day-to-day use, you’re blowing smoke.
  • ETAM (enterprise technical architecture management). The alternative to colonizing a new “island of automation” that results in re-keying-based integration and redundant business logic to maintain.

It’s hardly a complete list. This week’s discussion leads to two more:

  • Receptive audience. Without at least one influential executive who wants to try something new and innovative, your attempts at technology leadership will lead to nothing but frustration. Unless they lead to immediate unemployment.
  • Long EHL: EHL, for those who haven’t been with us long enough, is the epiphany half life — how much time must elapse for the enthusiasm for a new idea to decay to half its original level. If you want to provide technology leadership to your company you’ll need persistence — the ability to maintain your enthusiasm in spite of the inevitable organizational roadblocks you’ll encounter.

How does EHL fit into the discussion? Audiences don’t always start out receptive. Sometimes you need to persuade them — not an instantaneous process. If you don’t have a long EHL, the organizational depressives who surround you, trying to persuade you it will never happen here — will wear you down and wear you out.

They’re easy to recognize. They’re the ones who call themselves “realists.”

Comments (3)

  • A good and articulate article, but I respectfully disagree with your definition of leadership, at least in part. Borrowing from a book I read 20 years ago whose name I have forgotten, it seems to me that you are using the term “lead” to mean what I would call “manage”, i.e., figuring out how to do whatever has been decided to do. According to author of that book, leading is about deciding what should be done, with managing is about how to actually get it done.

    Assuming one is passionate about what the organization is doing, it seems to me that if you just talk about new and current computer technologies, that you would readily be perceived by the other business leaders within the organization as being a control function, like accounting, operations, or HR, another cost center support function, who will need to fight for every penny.

    But if you are passionate about the organization and can occasionally come up with new, but recognizable ideas to create new opportunities to grow the company’s business model, then you can earn the right to have a legitimate say in what the company decides to do, then switch into manager mode to get it done and show results.

    It seems to me that you fight great tactical battles to preserve IT, but if you and your staff can occasionally come up with tactical ideas that perceptually help the company advance its business plan, I think that could make it more likely that supporting IT initiatives would be seen as win-win for the company. To me, doing whatever it takes to part of the company’s leadership discussion is what it should mean to be an IT leader.

    I’m not saying it’s easy, but if you’re passionate about the company and what it’s doing…

    • I think you’re using Drucker’s definition: Leadership is doing the right things, management is doing them right.

      I just don’t find his definition particularly helpful, especially as the verb “to lead” has such a clear requirement that others are following.

      • If an IT manager is not passionate about what the organization is doing, then I agree with you, that, generally, a technically competent IT manager will know the right thing to do, because of her or his expertise, talent and experience. The manager’s focus will reasonably just be concerned on technical aspects of IT and getting projects done, maximizing user experience, maintaining staff, and strengthening IT infrastructure as much as possible.

        But, if a manager is passionate about what the organization is doing, then it seems to me, that both the leadership and the management aspects have to be strongly in play for that IT manager. To me, it’s “both/and” rather than an “either/or” situation. It’s my sense that people will have natural competencies or vision as leader or as a manager, but seldom both. Collaboration with one or more people within IT, but who have demonstrated perceptiveness in the leadership competency aspect that is not natural to a particular manager, is a solution I’ve been a part of on more than one occasion. It hasn’t always worked, but it seldom has hurt. And, sometimes, strategically, it worked well.

        You still get things done in a timely manner, but you also create more opportunities to raise the value of IT in the minds of other corporate leadership, and often increase the resources available to IT, if you are passionate about what the organization is doing, and can learn a way to reasonably implement this both/and approach.

        Which, of course, increases that manager’s options.

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