About twenty years ago, some friends and I took a trip to the backcountry of Montana. We were the classic suburbanites who wanted to get a taste of "roughing it." In preparation, we cleaned out the stock of hiking and camping gear at the local REI store.
Fortunately, we were aware of our own inadequacies and hired a guide who had the skills and knowledge that we lacked.
As we planned the trip, the guide came to know us. He asked what each of us wanted to gain from the experience and determined what our individual limitations were. He mapped out our venture by combining our expectations and capabilities with his understanding of the environment and wildness skills. Along the way, he made adjustments based on our endurance and adaptability. The guide's value came from helping us integrate into a new world.
So, what does roughing it in Montana have to do with being a world-class IT leader? I wish I could say that I went home from that adventure applying the lessons of the trip to my career. Instead, I spent the next twenty years learning and growing to become an effective IT leader.
Purely by chance, I adopted many of the same skills that made our guide extraordinary. My journey took some interesting twists and turns, and I learned and grew along the way.
I felt like an outsider for much of my career. I was an IT leader who had never written a line of code. I was always trying to prove myself to my colleagues. To many of my business partners and clients, I was "the guy from IT." As an outsider, I was constantly trying to fit in. I struggled to demonstrate how I added value.
It finally occurred to me that my real value came from being the outsider. My years of trying to fit in helped me understand what the various stakeholder groups needed and wanted from each other. I began to become a guide. I wasn't leading groups of twenty-somethings through the mountains of Montana; rather, I was leading teams to create value and solve business problems using technology.
Like our Montana guide, my value came from my ability to integrate the different worlds.I was fortunate to have an "a-ha moment" to initiate this change in thinking. I was the business information officer for a nascent division in a fast-growing financial services company. I had been with the business unit for several weeks and felt things were going well.
Following a team meeting, the head of the business asked me to stay behind for a moment. I was sure that he wanted to commend me for the quality of the technical solutions that I had contributed to the conversation. Instead, he clarified my role: "If you are just going to be our IT leader, we don't need you," he said. "You are a leader in this business, and I need your input on every facet of what we are doing."
That kick in the teeth changed my career. I came to that job as an IT professional with business skills. His words helped me reverse that description. I became a business leader with technology skills.