IT leaders share secrets of success

You never know what you're getting in a leader - whether they're running a country, a company or an IT department.

You may have seen the email that turns up periodically, which lists three past world leaders and asks you to pick the best one.

The first two options sound like drunken, drug-taking, wife-cheating losers. The third doesn't smoke, rarely drinks, is a vegetarian and sounds like an all-round good guy (if a tad boring, perhaps).

The punchline is that the first two are Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the third is Adolf Hitler.

It just goes to show that you never know what you're getting in a leader - and the same applies to leaders anywhere - whether they're running a country, a company or an IT department.

So what makes a good leader in the workplace? Everyone I spoke to for this column agreed that IT has, in the past, had its share of bad leaders who came from a technical background.

National Library of New Zealand general manager of IS Graham Coe says poor leaders are intensely interested in detail and usually come out of a technical background such as programming or systems support.

"They've never been able to let go of the detail, so their working day is taken up with pursuing various bits and pieces - whereas a good leader allows the workers at the coal-face to get on with their job, and bases their discussion with them on output: 'have you achieved this, or have you got any problems?'"

He says hiring managers purely for their technical skills is like saying that to be a good hospital manager, "you need to have actually cut someone up".

That's not to say that you can't be a good manager if you have a technical background - but it's not the only criteria for good leadership in IT.

Zespri New Zealand Kiwifruit IS manager Grahame Coles says HR departments are very involved in hiring senior management nowadays, and would never agree to an appointment on technical merit alone. "Unless the person's got real business acumen and a business focus they wouldn't get the job."

National manager of IT for the IRD, Shirley Hepburn agrees. She says her own job involves having business knowledge, expertise about organisational strategy, and being good at relationship and people management.

Everyone agreed that good leaders should have a commitment to people's career development and training. Hepburn says career development is important to IT staff.

"A CIO who is happy to invest in the skills and the development of their people is a good leader."

A good leader must also listen and make decisions based on that feedback. "A lot of managers never listen and just can't make decisions because they're fearful they'll make a bad one. But at the end of the day you've got to or you're not leading," Coles says.

Leading by example is another trait found in good leaders. Coe says that means showing enthusiasm and being committed.

Good communication skills are another sign of a good leader. Hepburn believes this is particularly important in terms of communicating the organisation's strategies and vision.

So, if all of the above make a good leader, how do you measure yourself? The IT managers I spoke to have formal and informal methods of judging.

Coe and Coles believe the morale and motivation of staff (and staff turnover) is one way to measure success. They also believe that your client base should be happy.

Coe says: "You need to put in place feedback mechanisms so you do know. You could be sitting in a corner in your office, dumb, fat and happy, unaware that the users don't see you as a help at all, but as a necessary evil."

To measure staff satisfaction, try surveying staff to see where you could improve. Hepburn tried this approach last year.

"Ask them what they like about working in this organisation. What do they think the management team could do to improve things?"

She recommends conducting these surveys regularly - perhaps every 18 months.

It's important for her, because being in a government department, she doesn't have a lot of money to throw at staff.

"It's important that I know if people are challenged in their job, if their managers are supporting them, if they're getting the development they need, and if am I meeting their career needs."

She says you have to be disciplined about such assessments.

"It's so easy to get bogged down in meetings and operational issues and forget about the people who actually make the place work."

Performance reviews are another option. Hepburn's organisation recently introduced a 360-degree system where the staff get to comment on their bosses as well as the other way around.

"It's really tough - no one takes criticism very well, but it's how you package it. It's seen as constructive improvement rather than criticism."

Kirstin Mills is Computerworld's careers editor. Phone her at: 0-3-467 2869; fax: 0-3-467 2875.

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