The situation is this: you have asked a new employee to write a proposal to buy some new equipment for your division. The employee feels she doesn’t have the time to do the right research. You have the choice to track her progress daily, have her report periodically, check in weekly and approach her hesitation with some hand-holding or more firmly. Your choices, obviously, will say a lot about what kind of leader you are.
I’m paraphrasing one of the first scenarios in a questionnaire offered by the Ken Blanchard companies as part of Situational Leadership, a training program for managers of all kinds. We’re a big believer in this program at IT World Canada and are rolling it out across the board. I’ve been through a lot of these kinds of exercises and I can say without hesitation that this is one of the few that really seems applicable. Even for IT managers.
Without going into too much detail, Situational Leadership maps out the various styles with which managers can approach a given problem. These include directive, coaching, supportive and delegation. It may sound like common sense, but there’s an art to knowing when to be more hands-on with those who report into you and when you let them take the lead.
As part of the training we were able to take our answers to the questionnaire we were able to see what styles we favoured as managers most often. Although what we discussed in this session was confidential, I think it’s okay to say that the vast majority tended to choose coaching and supportive leadership styles. When I asked our trainers, they said the pattern was extremely common.
“The only time I’ve seen it more directive is among the highly technical folks,” one of the trainers said. “It may be that because theirs is more of a how-to focus, with very specialized knowledge, that they feel more comfortable giving those step-by-step instructions.”
That makes sense, but it may also shed some light on why IT professionals are constantly being hounded about soft skills. One of the takeaways from Situational Leadership is you shouldn’t rely too heavily on one style, even the “friendlier” ones like coaching and supporting.
For technology executives, the trick is recognizing those areas where people – whether it be senior management, coworkers or business unit leaders – really don’t need to be told what to do. What they might need is some reassurance, some confidence-building, some freedom to make mistakes. IT is a profession that doesn’t tolerate a lot of mistakes, but it’s also a role that requires a lot of adaptability and flexibility in responding to problems. Many IT managers are already situational tacticians. Think of situational leadership as an inevitable upgrade.