The 8 essential habits of highly effective IT leaders
Leadership should be your top priority in steering your tech organization forward. Here's how to ensure success
Leading an IT organization is one of the toughest jobs in the world. Responsibilities are complex, most executives consider it a necessary evil, and everyone in it knows more than you do.
Tough as the job is, many IT leaders make it worse by treating leadership as an afterthought. Big mistake -- if leadership isn't your only job, it is at least a major component of what you do. You have to give it priority.
Luckily for you, I've broken the job down into its eight essential tasks. They won't make the job easy, but they will make leading your IT organization more manageable, and the results of your leadership more appealing to all who work for and with you.
Effective IT rests on leadership
Before we turn to leadership, let's discuss the four details that effective IT organizations get right:
1. Business integration: They integrate their work into the enterprise as a whole, properly defining and managing relationships while instituting effective governance mechanisms.
2. Process maturity: Whether the subject is project management, application development, information resource management, operations, or supporting personal technologies, they know how to do what needs to get done, finding the proper balance between the undesirable extremes of utter chaos and stifling bureaucracy.
3. Technical architecture: Rather than piling individual solutions together into a loose collection of stuff connected through a bunch of undocumented ad hoc interfaces, effective IT organizations solve each technical problem once and engineer integration in a consistent way.
4. Human performance: They understand that the most important determinant of organizational effectiveness is the people who make up the organization, their ability to collaborate, and the leadership they receive.
This isn't a complicated framework. Making it real isn't hard the way quantum electrodynamics is hard. It's hard the way digging a ditch is hard, because effective IT leaders aren't merely competent at all four of these factors. They delegate the complexity, focusing their own attention on building an organization that's highly competent at all four of these factors.
When the subject is organizational effectiveness, the key leverage point is leadership. With it, the rest will happen. Without it, IT will break up into isolated teams -- organizational silos, each of which might be effective at its own responsibilities, but that degenerate into mutual finger-pointing whenever something goes wrong.
Which gets to the question of whether leadership can be taught, or if it's something innate that some people just have, while others are born to be followers. This one is easy: The U.S. military has officer schools that consistently produce fine leaders. They are highly selective in whom they enroll; there's no thought that just anyone can be taught to reach the top ranks of the discipline. What they recognize and address is that aptitude by itself isn't enough. Those who aspire to leadership have a lot to learn to achieve their aspirations.
So, yes, leadership can be taught. Perhaps a better way of saying it is that leadership can be learned. While not everyone can become a great leader, everyone can become a better leader than they currently are.
First, though, they'll need to know what the job entails -- not in some fuzzy, inspirational way, but in terms of specific tasks they need to master and practice every day. Leadership doesn't happen as a result of simply trying to burn "follow me" thoughts into the heads of everyone around you. It happens because you take concrete steps that result in those around you following your lead.
The 8 directives of highly effective IT leaders
Leadership -- getting others to follow -- consists of eight tasks. That's it. The more skillful you are at them, the more likely it is that the people around you will go where you think they ought to go and do what you think they ought to do. And understand, "people around you" isn't limited to the employees in your organization. It also includes your boss, your peers, and those to whom your organization provides value (not your "internal customers").
What are the eight tasks? I was hoping you'd ask. They are (excerpted from "Leading IT: (Still) the Toughest Job in the World," which just hit the shelves and is, depending on your perspective about a book that's about half entirely new, either the second edition or the second first edition):
- Setting direction because you can't lead if you don't know where you're going.
- Delegating because if nobody knows what they're supposed to do, "follow you" doesn't mean anything.
- Making decisions because as a practical matter, everything you need anyone to do is the result of making these well.
- Staffing because if leadership is getting others to follow, choosing the right "others" is the difference between having to do it all yourself anyway and watching admiringly while it all gets done better than you could have done it.
- Motivating employees (and everyone else) because the more energy everyone applies to their responsibilities, the more gets done, the better it gets done, and the more everyone enjoys the process of doing it.
- Building and maintaining teams because when you lead more than one person they need to be able to work together effectively, otherwise they are more likely to cancel each other out than to get everything done.
- Establishing culture because if you don't establish it, culture will happen anyway, and often in ways that lead employees to make very poor choices.
- Communicating, which includes listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating, is integral to everything leaders do, because if you don't communicate effectively, all the other tasks of leadership will happen only inside your head where they won't influence anyone else.
Take control of your time
One more point (this is excerpted from Chapter 1): When the subject is leadership, managing your time is doubly important.
It's important first in that leadership isn't something you can treat as an afterthought or do in your spare time after you've completed your "real job." It is your real job or at least a major component of it. The eight tasks are yours to perform, and they won't get done without a serious commitment of your time, not to mention your energy, attention, creativity, and good judgment.
It wouldn't be a bad idea to start estimating how much additional time you should be spending on each of them. Then, when you've finished, take a look at your calendar to figure out where you're going to find the time to commit to them.
Of all the barriers to effective leadership, reorganizing your time budget is probably the hardest to achieve.
Focus on it.
Here's something that will make it hard for you to focus on it: To the extent you allow someone else to control your calendar -- in other words, to the extent that you've given that person authority over you -- you've allowed them to dictate to you where you have to be and why you have to be there. That means you've given someone else control over your priorities. It's an easy trap to fall into; when your calendar is full, you feel busy, and it's easy to mistake busyness for productivity.
Often, it's the opposite, because when your calendar is full you're dividing your energies over as many different subjects as you have appointments. That's the opposite of focus. And focus is an essential consequence of effective leadership.
Which means if you can't control your calendar, you can't even lead yourself. The same may be said about a lot of other subjects: If you have no self-control, can't motivate yourself, can't make decisions well, and so on, you can't lead yourself either.
And if you can't lead yourself, how do you expect to lead anyone else?
This story, "The 8 essential habits of highly effective IT leaders," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.