Ask a Premier 100 IT Leader
Company: Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission
Lodhi is this month's Premier 100 IT Leader. If you have a question you'd like to pose to one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm a good manager and have been told so repeatedly in performance reviews. What more do I need to become a leader? This is a great question. Let's explore the differences between a manager and a leader.
In general terms, a manager controls and manages processes, projects and budgets and has a well-defined role and assigned group of subordinates within the organization. There may be little or no need for vision in order for a manager to succeed.
The approach of a leader is the opposite. A leader conveys a vision of the future or an end state, sets boundaries and targets, knows his team and their capabilities well, and empowers them to perform by providing guidance as needed along the way. For this to work, the leader must have a strong team with the right skills that he or she can trust to do the job on time and on budget, without the day-to-day oversight a manager might be compelled to provide. The key difference is that the team you have assembled must follow your lead rather than await your directives. They must not only be skilled but sufficiently impassioned and self-motivated to succeed on your behalf out of respect for you, rather than fear for maintaining their jobs. An exceptional leader will also gain followers beyond the boundaries of the organizational hierarchy to support your vision, as long as it is a vision they can believe in. To do that, always remember that a leader cannot "buy" followers through incentive programs. Followers must be earned through a process of mutual respect.
Additionally, a leader is not generally defined by a job description and doesn't need to be in a defined leadership position to succeed. In reality, such positions are pretty rare outside of the executive suite. For this reason, your performance reviews will not normally reflect the somewhat intangible traits of great leadership, as most organizations base performance measures on the more finite, quantifiable attributes of management. I bring this up to warn that your initial efforts in becoming a well-respected leader will not necessarily be recognized at the time of your next performance review. But be assured that the journey is well worth the extra effort.
While some people take to a leadership role more naturally than others, leadership can be learned, if you open your mind to it. The first step is to recognize that there is a difference between being a manager and being a leader. By simply asking the question above, you show that you have already begun to focus your efforts in the right direction. Relative to IT business environments, the following steps can act as a guide to transforming yourself from good manager to great leader:
a) Move your thought processes away from hard-core technology fundamentals to understanding the business. Take off your IT hat and begin to wear the business hat instead. Learn what makes the business tick. While other departments may only carry knowledge of their own departmental activities, understand that IT has a role to play across all departmental functions. This one simple shift of focus can alone add substantial value and respect from your fellow business counterparts.
b) Don't measure your success based on the success of IT systems and support functions, but by how you directly contribute to the success of the organization itself. Ask yourself: How is IT contributing to the success of the business? A good manager may excel at ensuring that all fundamental IT activities are performing above expectations but will nonetheless only be recognized by the organization as a cost center in a supporting role. To become an IT leader, you must break from traditional roles and transform yourself and your team to add or create new value to the business. Also, never assume that the business sees your success as a leader in the same way as you might be measuring it. Always look at it in terms of how the business really sees you.
c) Finally, pass on this same approach to your team. Empower them, but never let your performance at the fundamental levels slip. Encourage your team to interact with the business side and become experts in how the organization operates. Develop partnerships between IT and the various business functions.
How can a fiftysomething IT professional best compete with the youngsters? I love my career and don't want to get shunted aside because I am perceived as having outdated skills. First and foremost, never allow yourself to become discouraged over the issue of age as a factor in how you are perceived, since real value simply cannot be measured by age alone. We do, however, live in a very dynamic era, especially as it relates to the growing role of technology as a strategic condition of business success. Customers are changing, the business is changing and technology is changing at a rapid pace, and it is imperative that you keep your skills up to date to keep up with these increasing demands. In this way, we are all on a continuous learning curve; we will always be students. The day you stop learning is the day you will have trouble competing, and this has nothing to do with age.
There are a couple of methods you might employ to kick-start your learning habit to make updating your skills an ongoing practice. Traditional training classes are an obvious choice for staying up to date, but given how technology is converging, you might consider training in subjects that have been traditionally separated from your area of expertise. For example, if you have been focused on network administration, then look at converging technologies such as VoIP as a means of adding value to your organizational knowledge and skill sets.
Secondly, change your thinking and break out of your comfort zone by crossing the boundaries of traditional IT management to non-conventional IT management approaches. IT is rapidly evolving from a straightforward support and service delivery organization to a strategic component of the business. Embrace this reality by examining challenges from a business perspective rather than with a technology focus. Understanding the problems of the business enables you to better seek out solutions that add or create real business value. To start on this path, try to integrate yourself into internal IT projects that will enable you to cross over the traditional boundary lines and in a sense, give you on-the-job training.
What specific certifications are truly worthwhile for a network administrator to pursue? Certifications are important to establish individual credibility in the fundamentals to which each of the various certifications apply. Such certifications should be considered worthwhile as long as they are relevant and up to date, starting with those that are widely accepted across the industry as having organizational value. Specifics are difficult to pinpoint since "network administration" might carry a broad meaning to the full scope of professionals in the industry, but these are easily searched online in your specific area of current expertise.
While these certifications have value in terms of establishing confidence in your ability to perform, it is in the actual performance of your work where true organizational value is derived. Working within the confines of your certifications will tend to set your organizational value as that of a specialist who works well in a traditional IT environment focused solely on support and service delivery. In today's dynamic IT environment, however, this may not be sufficient. IT is evolving from those support roles and transforming itself into a strategic partner to the business, where we must now add or create real business value to be considered a success. This means your role in network administration must also change and evolve. In terms of certifications, this might mean looking at where the network is going as technology convergence consolidates traditionally separate activities into one network such as VoIP or unified communications. Certifications in the area of converged technologies that are relevant to your business will expand your knowledge and give you the confidence to cross over those traditional boundary lines, preparing you for the fast-approaching future of the network while adding significant value to your personal portfolio versus someone who sticks to the fundamentals.