Selecting new IT leaders

One of the great privileges and responsibilities of leadership is identifying and training the next generation of managers and leaders. Somewhere in between crisis management, contract negotiations, internal politics, status monitoring and your myriad other tasks, you should spend a few moments considering the future leadership of your organization.

Figuring out who has the potential to become a great leader or middle manager of IT is difficult. Given that leadership is one of those things that most of us can identify when it’s put before us but find difficult to describe, it often seems impossible to predict an individual’s prospects.

There are traits that can be predictors of success. But before we dive into what to look for, let’s put to rest a few of the commonly used criteria that haven’t yielded stellar results.

Education: Lots of great business leaders have put in time in MBA programs, but even a degree from Harvard or the Kellogg School (my alma mater) doesn’t guarantee the right stuff. While important, understanding the mechanics and subtleties of business doesn’t necessarily translate into leadership success.

Tech smarts: As believers in meritocracy, we’re drawn to the idea that the person who best understands what’s going on technically is best qualified to be in charge. Unfortunately, the skills needed in a leadership role are different from technical savvy — and often don’t reside in one person.

Bossiness: The natural desire to be in charge doesn’t necessarily predict whether someone will be a good leader in a technical environment. The hierarchical top-down approach tends to be fragile when it comes to creative work. Those with the built-in desire to command frequently run smack into the brick wall of technical staff intelligence and intransigence.

So, which traits are better predictors of who will make great leaders?

Emotional flexibility: We talk a lot about being a good leader, but what about becoming one?

Great leaders start out somewhere else and have to move into leadership roles. Becoming a leader poses transitional challenges that can be met only with emotional flexibility. One of the great challenges for a new manager is to transform his view of himself, to change how he measures himself and his success. Early life and career work is judged by personal productivity. In school, we’re judged by the quality and quantity of our papers, tests and quizzes. Young workers are judged by the quality, quantity and speed of task completion. Our self-images become tied to our personal productivity.

Moving into management requires a fundamental shift in how we view ourselves, a shift in the emotions about self and work. Leaders are judged not by their personal productivity but by their effect on the productivity, morale and effectiveness of others. Managers must be able to derive their personal satisfaction from helping others be productive rather than being productive themselves. This is a difficult transformation that’s poorly understood and rarely discussed.

The ability to adopt a new self-image is critical to the transition into a successful leadership role.

Comfort with ambiguity: Beyond mastering their emotions, leaders must be able to cope with the chaos and confusion of reality. The world is a complex place filled with facts, provisional facts, lies, opinions and emotions. A large part of the leader’s role is to help interpret the turmoil and bring order, sense and meaning to daily work. Successful leaders must transform ambiguity into clarity and create compelling narratives out of complexity.

They also bring a high tolerance for the continuing existence of confusion. They’re able to hold contradictory ideas in their heads simultaneously without experiencing undue stress. Strong leaders aren’t impervious to new facts and information but are comfortable revising their interpretations to meet changing times.

Ability to communicate. The ability to cope with ambiguity means nothing without the ability to communicate. If leaders and managers deliver value through their effect on others, communication is their primary tool. Whether leaders communicate verbally, in writing or through their actions, their ability to connect with those they lead is of prime importance.

Considering these “softer” skills can help you to ensure a successful future for your organization.

Paul Glen is an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and the author of the book Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 2003; He can be reached at [email protected].

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