Most IT professionals don’t recognize the need for the soft business skills that are mandatory for their business counterparts.
By Lee Reese
An IT professional will often get promoted because he or she is a skilled programmer, a fine troubleshooter or a seasoned business analyst—and not because of demonstrated expertise in common leadership traits required in other business departments.
These traits include such skills as communication, strategic planning and influence-building, yet because they are lacking in a new team member, a senior IT leader will often find herself directing managers who lack the core skills needed to succeed at the highest levels of engagement with the business, which ultimately reduces the impact and success of the leader.
As a senior IT manager, it’s essential to develop your team’s leadership skills.
Understandably, this isn’t a quick and easy solution, but most IT professionals don’t even recognize the need for the soft business skills that are mandatory for their business counterparts. And those who do recognize this need rarely know where to start: These skills often are not included in IT college curriculum, and they are not the hard-skill training IT professionals know and love.
As one IT professional looking to make the jump to management said, “So far in my career I have found technical skill progression relatively easy. As we all know, self study and labs are king, but there isn't really a lab or exam available that says, 'this man can manage people’.”
Thankfully, this experience doesn’t have to hold true for your people. You can approach leadership skill development with the same level of clarity and concreteness as a technical proficiency. Here’s how:
*Identify what leadership skills your organization values. Your HR department will have a list of between four and 10 core competencies for leaders in your organization. HR selected these competencies based on your company’s values and their mission statement. Using these competencies—instead of general leadership skills such as “communication” or “motivation”—offers a few benefits. They already exist so you don’t need to tease them out; developing them creates leaders who align with larger business values and culture; and they are specific enough to provide clear definition.
*Produce IT-specific definitions around each skill. It’s all well and good to know your organization’s tenet such as “Change Leadership,” but what does that mean for IT as an organization? What does proficiency in Change Leadership look like for a BA vs. a project manager, or an applications director? What does it look and feel like? Work with HR to lock down measurable definitions for each core competency for each level of IT that you manage.
*Evaluate where your leaders currently stand on each skill. Over the last year, did your leaders meet the above definitions for each core competency? If your definitions are tight enough, you should be able to create a clear picture of where each of your leaders stands relative to each competency on your own. However, it is doubly revealing to ask your stakeholders how your team performed on each competency. Often your self-evaluations will not match your stakeholders’ evaluations. When the two evaluations don’t match up, assume your stakeholders’ are correct.
*Discuss this feedback one-on-one with your leaders. It isn’t enough to evaluate your people and then just tell them what they have to do. Professional development—especially for lacking skills—is a sensitive topic, and approached without transparency, and a clear supportive attitude, you can create panic. Consider using this script to start the conversation:
“I want our team to be successful and respected. In order to do this, we need a profile of what ‘success’ means. I have created an outline of the skills expected for your role and other roles in our group. Based on my experience working with you and your stakeholders’ feedback, there are three skills I think you already demonstrate, and these are two that I’d like to see you build upon. As your leader, I’m going to help you focus on these specific areas.”
*With your leader, agree on two competencies your direct report needs to focus on. (And this works for self evaluations, too) Pick two, at maximum. You may have a picture of where you want your team to grow, but your supervisor may have a different idea–this is critical stakeholder communication. This is not only about direct reports daily behavior, it’s about your boss’ view of you as a leader. You’ll be surprised what can be learned in these discussions.
*Create a development plan for those skills. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. You have to tailor each development plan to the needs of the individual you’re training and the competencies they need to improve within. Tools can include one-off training, coaching, mentoring or increased exposure to a new side of operations or the business. But one factor holds true for all skill development—your IT leader will have to go outside of their comfort zone.
*Continue to monitor each person’s development throughout the year. Simply setting your direct reports on a development plan is not enough. You cannot assume they believe your offer of support, or that they will even prioritize it. You have to follow up. Part of this means taking the annual review cycle surrounding these skills seriously—something IT professionals are often loathe to do. But part of it also means setting development milestones for each leader throughout the year. What will improved Change Management mean at the end of the first quarter? During your mid-year review?
You Don’t Have to Do All This, But…
If the above process sounds a little overwhelming, you’re not alone. This sort of individualized focus on leadership development is just plain foreign to IT as a field. But this is what it means to lead.
But as IT becomes an increasingly integral—and integrated—part of the business, the business is going to need IT leaders who are able to demonstrate these skills. And if the business can’t find them within IT, they will find them outside of IT.
So consider allocating the time and attention needed to make sure your team—the talented, ambitious, well-meaning professionals who look to you for guidance—have the skills they need to continue to guide your organization forward.
Lee Reese brings a broad perspective to her writing, to her management consulting services, and to her role as vice president of Rain Partners.You can read more of her articles at http://www.rainpartners.com/influential-it-pro-blog/.
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