Secrets to managing techies

If you want to be a better leader of your IT staff, then it’s best not to rely on that staple of leadership books, the profiles of military leaders such as Attila the Hun, George Patton or Colin Powell. IT employees don’t respond well to a leadership style based on power and control. That’s because IT work–programming, systems analysis, troubleshooting and the like–is centered on individual problem-solving that can’t be directed from above.

Since IT work is inherently creative, effective leadership of IT workers means facilitating work that is often chaotic and goals that are rife with ambiguities. The context of leading an IT organization includes aligning IT projects with business strategy, conveying direction to IT employees that’s consistent with that strategy, and keeping IT employees focused on end user needs.

Some big-picture leadership skills, such as communication, vision and negotiation, are the same whether one is a CEO or a CIO, says Paul Glen, author of the recent book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology. “At its heart, leadership is all about relationships with people,” he says.

But IT leadership skills diverge into unique territory when CIOs are immersed in the day-to-day operations of an IT department. They must motivate IT workers who thrive on challenges and aren’t primarily driven by monetary carrots or perks, and who love technology but sometimes need to be pushed to apply it in ways that help others do their jobs. What’s more, many CIOs (who still tend to come up through the IT ranks) make the mistake of focusing on technology rather than employees, Glen says.

No wonder that in a recent CIO survey, underlings don’t give CIOs high marks for leadership. Of the 400 participants in our online “What Do You Think of the CIO?” survey, only about half said their CIOs foster a team environment, use praise and constructive feedback to motivate, and delegate effectively. Here’s how to get on the right side of that divide.

Embrace Your Inner Techie

They might bristle at stereotypes, but IT employees do share certain tendencies that set them apart from workers in sales, finance and manufacturing. As creative problem-solvers, IT staffers get absorbed in whatever projects they are working on, often at the expense of relating to colleagues outside of IT. As technology aficionados, IT employees sometimes don’t have much patience with people who don’t share their enthusiasm for all things technical. And when it comes to organizational politics and Machiavellian maneuvers, most IT people couldn’t be bothered. For their part, employees outside of IT may not appreciate the nature of IT work, so CIOs need to serve as a bridge between disparate groups.

Grasp the traits that make IT employees tick to provide them with direction, motivation and goals. Kevin Orr, a former CIO for the Army hospital at Fort Rucker in Alabama, finds parallels between IT workers and artists. “IT people tend to work in tremendous spurts interspersed with dry spells,” he says. Currently a systems engineer at Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, Orr says it’s essential that CIOs provide IT employees with clear guidelines on tasks and communicate overall goals. But when it comes to the day-to-day work, CIOs need to let IT employees pace themselves as long as quality and deadlines aren’t compromised. Yet even CIOs who enjoy an insight into the IT mind worthy of Freud won’t get far if they lack credibility and respect from their staffs. That’s where technical knowledge comes in.

As far as leadership goes, “the major difference in being a CIO compared to a CEO is that IT people have little tolerance for anyone who doesn’t understand what they do,” says Steven Steinbrecher, former CIO of Contra Costa County in California. “If they think you are technology-stupid and they can buffalo you, they will.” Steinbrecher, who retired in July after nearly 30 years in IT, says that in every CIO job he’s had, at least one employee showed up at his office within the first few weeks to test his knowledge.

Jeff Chasney, executive vice president and CIO of CKE Restaurants, sounds a similar note. “Credibility is the key separating effective leaders from less effective ones,” he says. “If you have a baseline of knowledge, if you question IT employees on their assumptions, they’ll develop a deep appreciation for you.”

The depth required for a CIO’s technical knowledge depends to a great extent on the size of the organization. When complemented by a CTO, CIOs can succeed with less technical acumen as long as they understand how IT work gets done. At bottom, “the IT staff needs to know that the individual leading the organization, setting the strategic direction and working with customers is someone who understands what it takes to make IT happen,” says Terese Butler, the deputy director of IT at California’s Employment Development Department.

A high-level understanding of technology is essential for another reason as well: the CIO’s role of intermediary between the IT group and business units. Techies may think the world revolves around technology, but it’s the CIO’s job to make sure technology takes a backseat to business needs. CIOs should constantly hammer this message home in a way that doesn’t ruffle any IT employees’ feathers. George Lin, vice president and CIO at Documentum, a provider of content management software, keeps business needs at the forefront by banning technology talk with his IT employees. “I never talk technology to my own people,” he says, opting instead to “talk about how their work is related to the business.”

To discourage conversations focused on technology, Lin demands that his 75 IT staffers first understand the business. In tackling a systems integration project, for example, Lin requires IT folks to first draw out the entire business process flow involved in the project before they can focus their attention on specific EAI tools.

Know Where IT Should Go

When it comes to motivating IT workers, a hands-off philosophy works best. “If you know how to work with techies, they are the easiest kind of employees to motivate,” says Chasney. “They don’t need cushy perks, personal recognition or bonuses; they thrive on creatively solving problems.” When CKE Restaurants recently launched a project to retrofit DOS-based software onto new Windows-based point-of-sale hardware, Chasney challenged his team to come up with a way to do it without cracking the existing code, an approach that required heavy-duty technical wrangling. By encouraging his people to look at the problem in a different light, they came up with a simple, elegant solution in two days. Chasney’s lesson: Don’t tell IT people how to solve a problem. Plant an idea of where you want them to go, give them the resources they need, and let them find their own path to the solution.

One ongoing leadership challenge for CIOs is communicating how IT contributes to the business. This isn’t only about establishing ROI (although that’s always a bugbear); it’s about boosting the morale of IT employees by showing them how their work aids and abets business performance. “Evaluating and recognizing our contribution is tough in IT because we’re a couple of steps removed from the end result,” says Tim Buckley, managing director of IT at financial services company The Vanguard Group. With a typical project lasting 12 to 18 months, IT employees don’t always see how their work pays off. That’s a problem when the IT department itself is judged on how effectively it supports the business. CIOs have to highlight IT’s contributions to both employees and business users. “It comes down to communicating overall organizational goals and showing employees what their roles are in (fulfilling) those,” says Butler. To showcase the role of IT to the business side at California’s Employment Development Department, she has invited developers to give project demos to execs, making sure to emphasize how the project improves productivity.

IT staffers place great value in ongoing training, but typically it’s technical updates they want, not management training. Ideally, your workers should develop skills that build professionalism in the IT group and align with the company’s needs. At Documentum, where the business side puts a premium on soft skills such as customer service and negotiation techniques, Lin works with the HR department to provide IT people with training in those areas. “Without the soft skills, IT people won’t be very successful working with our internal customers,” Lin says.

The CIO’s ultimate role is to harness technology for the organization’s best use. The most successful CIOs know what motivates their staffs and how to lead them toward success.