Note to Managers: Leadership is not optional

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I can’t remember now when I made the transition from manager to leader?  That moment when I realised that everything I knew about managing people counted for nothing if I wasn’t living the organisation’s values and demonstrating the behaviours expected of me on a daily basis.  I suspect it was sometime in the mid-2000s.

Prior to that I had been busy project managing Y2K transition projects to ensure that the world wasn’t going to end and planes weren’t going to drop out of the sky because the year ticked over to 1900 instead of 2000, remember?  What an anti-climax that was.  I was appointed to that role because I knew how to organise myself and also how to plan, organise others and make sure things got done on time (budget wasn’t really an issue for Y2K).  And I did just that, I got it done and I did it in the only way I knew how, I made sure everyone knew what they needed to do, I let them get on with it and made them laugh when things got tough.

Now they may sound like good leadership traits, but sometimes those laughs were at the expense of an individual or of the particular company we were working with at that time.  Similarly I would take extra time for lunch or leave earlier than everyone else without just reason to.  These few actions completely undermined any leadership credibility that I built.  So whilst I got the job done, I was a good manager and not a good leader.

Thanks in part to working for some excellent leaders I gradually came to learn the difference and spent a lot of time modifying my approach and behaviours to become better at it.  I read about what good leadership looked like and aped those who I aspired to be like.  And now, after 25 years of working I believe that I have an approach that is leadership first and management second (probably entertaining third, if you’re asking).

Of that 25 years, the last 15 has been spent in IT and with the exception of one exceptional organisation I have seen very little in the way of good leadership from anyone other than the CIO and in some instances not even here.  I see too many subject matter experts promoted to management positions in order to either ensure that they don’t leave for a competitor or to reward them for their good/bad (it happens) work.  In my opinion – and based solely on my experience – I’ve yet to see a good IT SME become a good leader.  They don’t engage well; they don’t delegate; they don’t seek the opinions of others; they don’t make timely decisions (even if they’re wrong); they don’t try to line work up against organisational objectives; they can be insanely negative; they bad mouth colleagues without addressing the issues and they don’t consistently demonstrate the values and behaviours of the organisation.

But it’s not always their fault.  Sometimes they don’t actually want to be managers, they just want some recognition, a pat on the back or more money at the end of the year.  Even when they do want to be a manager, no one tells them when they are promoted (or offered a promotion) that a core competency of being a manager is being a good leader.  It’s not explained to them in layman’s terms that the team they were once part of, will now look up to them and turn to them for answers.  They may be taken through a Lominger card sort or given a leadership book, but that won’t change those SME tendencies until someone says to them ‘this is how you need to be different’ and then keeps telling them until they get it.  Then and only then will all that Lominger stuff make sense.

So for all you budding leaders out there, here are some things (in layman’s terms) that you may need to do differently in order to become a good leader:

1. Look for an internal leadership coach and ask them to give you feedback.  If you’re new to this leadership lark what better way to learn than for someone to point out where you could be doing it better.  Not only that it sends a message that you want to improve

2. Give a damn.  About everything your company values.  Then practice it on a daily basis

3. Set goals, be positive about your work and always be solution focussed when things don’t go to plan.  If your organisation has a blame culture, call it out and demonstrate how it should be done.  We all make mistakes, it’s the way we learn to get better

4. Control your emotions, because only you can.  Be reasonable and respectful at all times, learn to talk confidently to a group and understand what it means to apply influence instead of fear.  Flying off the handle is for birds perched on spades

5. Bitch about your work colleagues to your partner, your pet or yourself (if you must do it at all).  Never do it in the office, at the Xmas party, in an email or on any form of social media. Ever

6. Make every minute you’re at your desk productive, work-wise.  If you’re checking your Twitter feed, Facebook page, the news or watching cat videos for more than 10-20 minutes a day (over lunch or on the toilet – you know you do it)  then you might want to ask for more work.  Or a week off to recharge your batteries

7. Don’t conform to dress down Friday.  You’re not that person anymore, you’re a leader, you’re expected to set an example and be different

8. Don’t accept mediocrity from yourself or anyone else and if any part of your team isn’t performing then deal with it immediately (making notes on the actions you’ve taken)

9. Turn your phone on silent when you’re in a meeting or better still leave it in a desk drawer. If you check for email – or worse, take a call (emergencies excepted) – during a meeting you’re telling everyone in that room that you just don’t care about what they’re saying

10. Smile.  You’ll be amazed at how infectious it can be

There’ll likely be a dozen others that people can add – please do, in plain English only – and these aren’t just unique to IT, however I can only talk about what I know.  And I only know these things because over the last 25 years, I’ve learnt how to do them myself and I’m still learning.

More change please, less projects

The goal of every organisation, in every country, every year is to continue to do the things it’s good at and improve the things it’s not so good at.  This will keep the money coming in, give you a good chance to make more money or give you enough to keep you in business (even if you’re a charity or not for profit).  You can’t just sit there and expect everything that you’ve done the previous year to work perfectly again the following year.

And yet, I worked for one organisation that had no strategy.  Can you imagine that, working for a company that had no plan for what its future success looked like?  No vision, no stated purpose, no ‘look how bold we are’ statement to attract the best people.  And guess what? Staff engagement was at an all time low and they couldn’t understand why.

project-task-listThey were, however, great at listing the projects they needed to do every year.  Of course, they had no future state to link them to though, so it was just a bunch of things they felt they should do, that they didnt’ do last year or had been demanded on a whim by someone in higher authority.

But like a lot of organisations, there were too many of them.  So pressure was applied to staff to get projects delivered.  And before they could finish them, more were added.  And actually they didn’t have enough staff to do them all, so they had to employ a lot of contractors, who cost millions of dollars.  Which could have been better spent developing their internal people to provide for better succession planning and improve morale.  But like I said, they had no view of what success looked like, so everything was a priority, which meant that nothing ever got finished because they didn’t have enough people….and so on and so forth.

When something actually did get finished (a lot later and more expensive than first predicted), there was a lot of back slapping and rooftop shouting, but then they made the fatal error of not ensuring that the change required from that project was actually realised, because everyone was off and working on the latest top priority initiative.  So they actually spent 12 months and millions of dollars staying the same or just getting worse, whilst losing a good proportion of its good staff along the way.

Call it what you want – business planning or portfolio management – at the end of the day it’s the people who run the organisation getting together and doing what they’re paid to do.  Arguing the toss over what the goals for the company are for that year and making sure they only take on those things that will allow them to achieve that.  Do the projects well (allowing time for good planning of course) but then make sure something changes to improve what you do and make sure your business as usual work is about making things better too.

When I first started work as a bank clerk, the manager constantly reminded us that ‘if what we do is not going to make the bank better or richer, then don’t do it’.  Which is why I stopped drinking Pernod.