Are You Manager Material?

Knowing the technology isn't enough¿today's IT managers need business, people and political skills. Here's how to know if you have what it takes.

There was a time when all it took to climb the career ladder in IT was a good understanding of technology. The more you knew, the higher you could climb. Today, understanding the technology is no less crucial. But if you want to start moving up the rungs of the management ladder, you need a lot more than that.

"Years ago, if you knew more about the current software than anybody else, you could get a great job," notes Jane Howze, managing director of The Alexander Group, a Houston-based search firm that places IT executives. "You still can. But the best jobs are going to people with management skills who can manage and motivate a staff, recruit and keep turnover low."

And so, top managers report, today's successful IT middle manager is a "people person," someone who's as good at giving performance reviews or handling conflicts among team members as he is at writing code. He must also have a thorough understanding of the business side of the company's operations.

"That's a difficult blend to find—someone with a good technical upbringing who's also a strong human resource manager," says Doug LaBoda, vice president of information systems and CIO of the claims service and personal lines at Travelers Property Casualty Corp. in Hartford, Conn. "But my experience has shown me those are the people who are most effective, whose projects come in on time and who can depend on their workforce when faced with a difficult task."

Assuming you've already got top-notch technical skills, what are some of the human resources skills you'll need to be a successful manager? The following are some that today's top IT executives consider essential:

Understand the Business

"We have promoted a number of people to a management position, not because they were great technologists, but because they understood our business," says Jeff Marshall, vice president and CIO at The Men's Wearhouse Inc., a specialty apparel chain in Houston. Within the organization, technology is a service business, serving users who in turn serve customers, says Marshall, who works in the company's Fremont, Calif., executive offices.

"There are many people in technology who are enamored with the latest-generation language or application or gadget. Sometimes, it clouds their vision of what is required to serve the customer," he says. Although The Men's Wearhouse needs and values technological expertise, what it needs at a management level is a business leader, Marshall explains.

Be a Good Communicator

"Communication is clearly one of our biggest challenges," says David Johns, senior vice president and CIO at Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio. "Information technology people can get very wrapped up in technical jargon and speaking in technical terms. Communicating clearly and concisely is important—we need to be able to simply state what we're doing and how we're going to solve a problem."

Communication skills are so important that teaching experience can be a clue that a job candidate will make a good manager, according to Francis Juliano, chief technology officer at DoveBid Inc., a Foster City, Calif.-based firm that specializes in industrial auctions.

"Good managers seem to be good educators," he says. "When you're looking at someone's resume and wondering if they'll make a good manager, you look for depth and breadth of experience, not only on the development side but on the project management side."

Ideally, a candidate should already have some management experience, he adds. "A manager needs to be able to both hire staff and terminate staff," Juliano says. "It takes quite a bit of strong character."

Learn How to Motivate Others

Motivating others can be tricky, especially for technology people, who can often get through large portions of their workdays with minimal human interaction.

"Typically, engineers and developers only have to interface with the computer," Juliano says. "A good manager is someone who's also working with people on the team and has shown an ability to develop those skills."

Such skills are especially crucial for managers in technology fields, thanks to the tight labor market.

"Technology people are in great demand around the country, and if they're dissatisfied, they can leave pretty easily," LaBoda says. He adds that the past few months' layoffs and company closings haven't changed that, "so you have to be very good at providing whatever makes them want to stay with you."

Average technology turnover runs in the 20% range, he adds. "That's an important statistic to try and beat. You want to do much better than that, and you'll only be able to do so much with compensation," says LaBoda. "Sooner or later, other qualities become important. What is it about working for you that makes them want to stay in your company and keeps them engaged and energetic?"

That's why, when evaluating management candidates, Juliano says he listens carefully for what he calls "the 'me, myself and I' problem. Someone will be telling you about a project they worked on, and in their story, the project only managed to succeed by that person's sheer efforts."

It's appropriate for an interviewee to describe his skills and experiences, of course. "But when you're communicating your great skills, you should also talk about the other people who were part of the process," Juliano says. "There is no I in team, and a good manager knows what a team is and how to create one."

Be Confident in Your Ability to Lead

"Insecure people don't do very well as leaders or managers," says Johns. "Secure people can approach leadership in a much healthier way. They're confident in their abilities, and they're comfortable with their roles. They know they don't have every single answer, that they can be wrong and that they can ask questions. They figure out when it's good to be a participant in a team and when it's good to be the leader. They're comfortable with that."

But what about an insecure person who harbors management aspirations?

Johns says confidence comes from a combination of experience and being honest with oneself. You can gain experience by managing small projects and tackling lower-level management tasks, he says.

On a more personal level, "an insecure person needs to step back and ask, 'What are my problems?' " Johns says. "That's a very individual case."

Zetlin is a freelance writer in Woodstock, N.Y.

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Three Steps to Being a Better Manager

Most good managers weren't born that way. Instead, they learned over the years to develop the skills that would help them be effective leaders. If becoming a manager is part of your dream, there are things you can do that can help you develop the same skills. Here's a look at three of them:

1. Take a course. Colleges, business schools and professional organizations, such as the American Management Association, all offer management courses that can help you acquire the skills you need.

According to Jeff Marshall, CIO of The Men's Wearhouse Inc. in Houston, the best way to look at these courses is as a chance to absorb some basic management concepts, not as a comprehensive how-to. "It will introduce a concept and plant a seed," he notes. The best time to take a course, he says, is when you take on your first managerial role, when you're open to new concepts and can put them to use.

Another alternative might be to learn about management in-house, by working with a mentor—a more experienced manager who can advise and guide you as you face your first management challenges. Informal mentoring is a long-standing corporate practice, and some companies have formalized mentoring into specific programs that will match you up with a more senior counterpart. Either way, working with a mentor can be a great way to improve your management skills.

2. Learn the business from the bottom up. IT executives stress how important it is for technology managers to have a good understanding of the business they're working in. One great way to gain that perspective is to spend a few days working with technology users themselves. Ideally, you should work with people who interact directly with customers, so you can learn about the issues they face.

Do this with an open mind, and it won't take you long to gain a better perspective on the business than you could ever have gotten if you'd stayed within the IT department.

3. Start learning to be a manager. The best way to learn how to do something is simply to do it. For an aspiring manager, this means starting small, with lower-level management tasks. Seek out opportunities to take the lead on smaller projects, for instance.

If there are no opportunities to try your hand at managing within your company, don't despair. One option might be volunteering. Professional organizations, church and community groups all need people to organize events, handle fundraising, communications and so on. And working with other volunteers should teach you a lot about how to motivate people in nonmonetary ways.

—Minda Zetlin

How Do You Measure Up?

Not everyone is cut out to be a manager. So before you set out to land that middle-management position, career experts advise, give serious thought to the question of why you want to be a manager in the first place.

Chances are, it's not the only way to advance your career and increase your pay. Many companies promote and compensate their expert technologists about the same way they reward managers.

To accommodate such people and make the best use of their skills, The Men's Wearhouse has developed a track for IT employees that parallels the climb up the management ladder, except they don't actually manage other workers.

"There are some people who love technology, who want to be knee-deep in it," says Jeff Marshall, the company's CIO. "So we've developed a different career path. It allows someone to go from an analyst to a senior analyst to a consultant to a senior consultant. They make $100,000 a year."

Following a track like this may be a better alternative than trying to squeeze yourself into a management role that isn't a natural fit. Marshall recalls one technology person who took on a new department, overseeing new technology, and ran into trouble.

"I needed stronger leadership with a newer department," Marshall recalls. "This person certainly had the technology skills, but he wasn't quite the leader or motivator I would have liked him to be."

Complaints from this manager's team kept filtering back to Marshall. "They were constantly coming to a decision point and not going beyond it," he says. "He didn't have the vision to give them an overall direction."

Giving your team members an overall goal is essential to motivating them, Marshall adds. "You need to be able to say, 'Ultimately, we're going left. You may need to take a right here in order to get there, but that's where we want to wind up,' " he says.

After seven months and several conversations about how the team needed more direction, it became clear that this manager couldn't handle his role. "We moved him into a position that was less a leadership role," Marshall says. "And that's worked out quite well."

He adds that although he wasn't sorry to have given this would-be manager a chance, it was also important to face the fact that the situation wasn't working. "Ultimately, your team is depending on you to make that call," Marshall says. "Otherwise, you'll have turnover."

—Minda Zetlin

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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