How to lead when leaders are needed

I believe I’ve read every magazine article and popular book on what makes a great manager/corporation/CIO/ leader – take your pick. I managed some of the most challenging employees of them all (journalists) for 12 years. And I have carefully observed the good, the bad and the ugly of IT management for 20 years.

Leadership is never more important than in increasingly uncertain economic times – like today.

The eyes of the masses turn to the boss for confidence, solace, direction and support. So here’s the distillation of a lot of great thought (mostly someone else’s) on the makings of a sterling IT leader:

Advocate for polite applause. It’s always great getting some sort of “attaboy/attagirl” from the boss, but when was the last time an individual in IT got accolades from the boss’s boss, or others in non-IT management? When a job well done by the network administrator gets rewarded with a personal note or a gift certificate from the CFO or division president, it’s an amazing morale booster. The CIO can and should regularly advocate for such extra-departmental kudos. They’ll become proudly displayed, badge-of-honour wallpaper for cubicles and office walls.

Advocate the value of IT. Over the holidays, my nephew, a network administrator, showed me a video he made at work as part of an office contest. It was a comedy featuring the IT department and help desk. He said it got a lot of laughs at work since it reinforced many of the widely-held Dilbertesque views of IT. That’s so ironic in a day when corporate titans like Charles Schwab and GE’s Jack Welch state over and over that their companies’ fates are inextricably linked to their IT strategies. The CIO should take the lead role in forever dispelling the notion of IT as a whipping boy and laughingstock. The best CIOs spend time as their departments’ public relations agents, regularly meeting with small and large groups throughout the company to beat the IT drum and extol the successes and challenges IT faces.

Be seen and heard. Many, if not most of you, have an office with walls and a door. Did you ever ask why? During three years as a manager of 75 people, I morphed my personal workspace from a traditional office first to a fishbowl literally in the middle of the department with four glass walls and no curtains, and second to a wide-open space with no doors or walls at all, save the exterior wall. I did the same for all other managers, then sprinkled a few conference rooms throughout the floor for private conversations. Personal contact with the staff more than doubled. Anyone and everyone stopped by to talk about anything and everything. It’s hard to quantify, but my knowledge and understanding of the most critical assets I managed and of the factors that motivated them increased dramatically. So tear down the walls, literally, and be seen and heard. They are a piece of the past that you no longer need.

Make your motto “Nothing recedes like success.” In other words, institutionalize change as a permanent fixture of life in the IT profession. This of course should be a corporate mantra, but it has to start at the departmental level, and that means the CIO becomes the agent of constant and continuous change within IT. Done properly, change happens in an almost evolutionary way. That is, almost no one notices from week to week. But the CIO can review procedures, methodologies and other candidates for constant change and improvement every six months and on an annual basis, pointing out the changes made and the resulting benefits. Being resolute about institutionalizing change can be both the simplest and the hardest thing you do, because most people just don’t like it.

The world’s best managers practice and endorse these routines. None of this is hard, and that’s the beauty of this collective wisdom.

Laberis is a consultant in Holliston, Mass., and former editor-in-chief of Computerworld (U.S.).

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