Poof! You

“I must hurry, for there they go and I am their leader.” It’s just an inspirational quote that Theresa Senter spotted on a co-worker’s wall, but she hasn’t been able to get out it of her mind. The quote captures the essence of what makes a true leader, says Senter, director of global infrastructure services at The Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta. It’s someone who can point employees in the right direction and let them take charge from there.

“I love riding with them,” she says. “It’s a partnership, not a hierarchy.”

Words to live by. But such wisdom typically isn’t handed down to new leaders when they take on their first management jobs. Good management training courses provide some guidelines, but it often takes years before the pieces start to come together and the job makes sense, say veterans.

“It’s something we do a poor job of in general,” Senter says of management training. “So many times we go, ‘Poof! You’re a manager.’ ”

Running meetings, balancing budgets, selling executive boards on ideas, counselling troubled workers and negotiating inter- and intradepartmental battles: New managers can easily find themselves overwhelmed by their new roles. It can be tough work, but Senter’s advice is to keep it simple. Everything boils down to the business and the people, and a good manager puts them above all else.

A favourite management technique for Peggy Fechtmann, senior vice-president of IT services and CIO of corporate systems at New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., is to give workers what she calls “stretch jobs,” roles that accomplish a major goal for the company and force employees to stretch themselves beyond what they think they can handle.

“Some people see it as burdensome,” she says. “Some people see it as the challenge they’ve been looking for.”

For instance, Fechtmann’s department recently finished developing a new accounts-payable and asset-management system for Met Life. It was a “big, cornerstone project” that was slated to expand to all of Met Life’s subsidiaries, and it came with a US$20 million price tag, says Fechtmann. As the project wound down, Fechtmann asked one of the project leaders a difficult question: If he knew ahead of time what the project would entail – 15- to 18-hour workdays and major headaches – would he do it again?

“He said, ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,’ ” Fechtmann recalls. “This guy will never be the same as a result of what he went through: the exhilaration and the sense of satisfaction. To me, that said it all.”

Words to the Wise

To be a good manager, you must be able to motivate your staff, says Senter. The question remains, How do you do that? The key is to learn to listen to workers and, sometimes, to hear things that aren’t said, explains Fechtmann.

A manager also needs to learn how to be heard by executives, Senter adds. It’s critical that IT managers learn business-speak in order to secure needed support from senior management.

“You don’t talk about servers and megabytes and bandwidth,” she says. “You talk about how the business benefits from those things.”

Reading annual reports and other management materials can help IT professionals speak the language of business, she says. It’s also a good idea to get close to the company’s human resources and public relations staffers, because they can help you learn how to get your message across to senior leaders, says Senter.

Craig Washington, an IT manager for the past three years in the New York office at Barclay’s Capital, has come up with a game to help his staffers communicate their technical work in general business terms. Every so often, he has them describe something, like a pen, without actually using the word pen. He also makes a point of shifting people’s jobs around – such as switching a business analyst in the commercial banking group with a business analyst who works in the asset management division at the bank – so they can see the different aspects of the business and understand how everything fits together.

On the project management end, Washington stresses the importance of involving end users in project development. That makes them stakeholders, and “they become your best salespeople,” he says.

Mark Hedley, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at Dallas-based Wyndham International Inc., has taken that approach a step further: He’s created a formal system for involving users in the development process. He breaks his projects into five-section strategic plans, with 90-day increments for each step.

While such techniques help managers get a handle on day-to-day operations, a good leader also needs to step back and look at the big picture. Sometimes, that means being brave enough to question current processes, says Fechtmann.

When she starts a new job, she throws all assumptions out the window and asks two questions: Are the clients’ needs being satisfied, and what does her group need to do to ensure that their needs will be satisfied in the future? If their needs aren’t being met, Fechtmann may move responsibilities around, axe an existing project or launch a new one.

“Who’s to say that the status quo is where we want to be?” she asks.

One of the most difficult questions a manager faces is how much to involve employees in decision-making. A good manager knows how to communicate with workers and take feedback from them. “But then you have to be willing to say, ‘This is the way we’re going to go.’ ” says Fechtmann. “You can’t get stuck in analysis paralysis.”

But, she adds, the best managers are comfortable with the fact that they don’t have all the answers.

“It’s a process you work on every day,” she says. “You’re never finished.”

Tips For New Managers

The best advice for new managers: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But on a more practical level, the following can go a long way toward building a solid manager/employee relationship: