IT Management is counter to everything you know

One of most difficult challenges an organization can face is building effective IT Leadership. It faces the paradox of needing IT Leaders with strong technical background and skills who understand that leadership is the exact opposite of everything they’ve come to know up until that point in their career.

As technical experts we’ve spent most of our career jumping in and solving problems, taking pride in our ability to research and implement smart solutions. As leaders it’s no longer about what you can do, it’s about what your team can do. This can be supremely difficult because you must know enough about what needs to be done to exercise good judgement, but resist your urge to dive deeply into the implementation details and get distracted from your role across the organization. You also have to know your people’s skills deeply enough to understand what is a comfortable fit, what is a stretch and what is a gap for them and how to mitigate for it. You have to put your pride aside and not get caught up in the (often romanticize) notion of how you could solve the problem back in the day. You have to navigate the subtle differences between the tight control needed by an implementer and firm guidance required by a leader who facilitate them.

Our conceptional models of how we fit into an organization is strongly shaped by our vision of the day to day value we add. We have to be able to let go of that conceptual model to understand the role soft skills play in the organization in building our teams and organization over time. This can be especially challenging for anyone coming from the concrete world of implementation. We have to trade our immediate mindset of how we’re going to get our work done today for a longer view of how is this work going to get done in the future and continue to be done, perhaps even be an entirely different set of people, perhaps with an entirely different leader. We have to broaden our assessment of strategies to imagine a way to forge a trail ahead for the skills we’ll need next month or next year instead of what skills we need to get the job done today.

Leadership comes with a large set of challenges to begin with but the unique challenge in IT is that it requires the exact opposite of some of our most powerful habits and strongest mindsets up until that point in our careers.  A mindful approach to this transition is critical and there are a number of great books or resources to help develop leadership mindsets, but it requires recognizing the difficulties in the first place.

Executive Leadership in particular needs to understand these issues as they are the ones developing and choosing their organizational IT Leaders.  Too often they avoid the issue by choosing IT Leaders from a pool of career managers with little to no IT skills, which is often a fatal flaw, and introduces too large a gap between Executive Leadership and product implementation.  On the opposite end, Executive Leadership can sometimes simply advance someone to IT Leadership based on their technical skills alone which runs the risk of driving toward directionless growth of their IT products and an inability to sustain or replicate any success across teams or over time.