When the work gets stressful, it’s easy to fall prey to quick management fixes that can harden into habits that do more harm than good.
By John Edwards
CIO | JUL 12, 2021
IT leadership is challenging work. In addition to devising technology strategies that create maximum business value on a budget, you have to establish and motivate a highly productive team capable of tackling a wide range of technical issues while executing your vision for IT.
At times the overwhelming nature of this work can lead even the best IT leaders to succumb to habits and management philosophies that on the surface appear to address a pressing need at hand but ultimately do your department more harm than good.
The following six common approaches to addressing IT management issues are exactly the kinds of traps you want to avoid falling prey to in leading your teams.
As the noted 20th century management scholar Kurt Lewin observed, gatekeepers make the final decision on who is “in or out.” By steadfastly protecting “Fortress IT” from unwelcome enterprise intruders, this type of leader sees the capabilities unlocked by their department as the key to innovation and success, observes Brian Jackson, a research director and analyst at IT research firm Info-Tech Research Group.
While gatekeeping can seem like a means for ensuring IT’s integrity and value, especially in the face of unending — and at times superfluous — business requests, it ultimately becomes a trap for both IT and your career.
Instead of seeking to partner with enterprise management, the gatekeeper seeks to control and limit access to IT resources. In the gatekeeper’s view, it’s not IT’s responsibility to learn more about the business and to figure out how to help business leaders reach their goals. Instead, it’s up to the enterprise to understand how technology works and the role it can play in achieving their business goals.
Jackson points out that gatekeepers are also obsessed with demonstrating that their teams are extremely busy, without really caring whether the work is leading to positive outcomes for the business. “These managers focus on productivity monitoring, measuring metrics related to infrastructure and the number of hours employees work,” he explains. It’s a command-and-control management style that demonstrates a lack of team trust. “They expect their employees to be present in the office environment from 9-to-5 and ‘punch the clock’ on hours worked to prove they are fulfilling work obligations,” Jackson says
IT teams unlucky enough to work under a gatekeeper will often get the message that the business lacks respect for their department, Jackson notes. “They feel like they’re just expected to fulfill requests and to do work that doesn’t seem technically feasible because the business didn’t involve them in their planning until the last possible minute.” IT’s typical reaction to this flawed relationship is to reject essential business requests as being “out of scope” or “impossible to integrate,” forcing business leaders to find another path to creating the technical capabilities they need to remain competitive.
The result is a lost opportunity for IT to become involved in innovative projects directly tied to revenue creation. “[IT] will continue to be seen as a cost center and a department that’s consumed by ‘keeping the lights on,’” Jackson says. Meanwhile, instead of supporting business growth, gatekeepers tend to remain fixated on improving metrics related to their time spent at work and on infrastructure efficiency, leading to outcomes that are generally of little interest to the business. “The rigid stance on productivity measurement will feed into negative employee experiences and lower employee engagement, ultimately lowering productivity,” he explains.
Instead of acting as gatekeepers, IT leaders should serve as “door-openers” who seek to assist their business partners by taking the time to understand their top priorities and major projects, Jackson says. Effective CIOs “know the goals of the business and work to make IT a constructive part of the path to achieve them,” he observes. A business-engaged IT leader also encourages their team to get involved in cross-functional groups and to spend time on new projects that are tied directly to revenue. “They seek to automate or outsource non-strategic IT operations, such as infrastructure maintenance.”
2. Obsessive micromanagement
Much of IT is about executing the details, but obsessing over IT perfection can lead to micromanagement, which destroys individual initiative and trust, key ingredients in fostering team creativity and innovation, says Alberto Ruocco, CIO of West Monroe, a business and technology consulting firm. IT teams thrive when presented with specific outcomes, clear guiding principles, and the freedom to take risks and be creative. Micromanagement prevents all of these things from happening.
Ruocco states that all his teams collaborate to build the department’s guiding principles. “We establish clear expectations for how we want to work together and how we will work with our business partners,” he says. “We rely on agile principles to structure our work and cadence for delivering value.” The entire West Monroe IT staff is encouraged to take risks and explore technology and architecture options to arrive at solutions that promise to bring maximum value to the firm’s clients and employees.
Ruocco admits that it can be challenging to ignore the constant stream of new management ideas that promise to transform business and IT, but he prefers to keep things simple. “At West Monroe, we often use the expression, ‘Execute the brilliant basics,’” he says, noting that the demand on IT organizations is constant and always exceeds capacity. “In this context, a focus on the basics and consistent, high-quality execution of basic principles and practices wins the day.”
3. Excessive hands-off management
Leaders aware of the downsides of micromanagement can often fall prey to its opposite: excessive hands-off management, which in its own way can be just as destructive to IT operations and performance. While toiling under a micromanaging leader can be both exhausting and exasperating, serving under an uninvolved leader can be just as frustrating.
“Too much of a hands-off approach can lead people to drift away from the team’s vision and goals and produce results that aren’t what’s needed for the maximum success of the business,” explains Tim Chadwick, CISO for LINQ, a software company serving the K-12 business market. “It can also lead to teams rushing to meet deadlines, a delay in decision-making, a lack of accountability, and turf wars within the various teams and departments,” he warns.
When viewed from a management perspective, IT is really not much different from any other business segment. “IT should have measurable goals and a vision for what matters most to the company and what their role is in its achievements,” Chadwick says. “An organization’s IT team should not only be the facilitator of the company’s goals but should also be the main driver of innovation.”
Technology is constantly changing and improving, and information security requires vigilance and awareness, Chadwick says. “Hands-off leadership can lead to an IT team that’s incapable of keeping pace, which bleeds over into other business segments, thus affecting the entire company.”
An adept IT leader will establish structure, measurables, and goals, and then use these elements to help guide their team. Finding a balance between hands-off and micromanaging is the key, Chadwick explains. “Employees need the freedom to think and act independently so they are empowered to innovate,” he states. “However, they also need to feel supported and haven’t been left to fend for themselves.”
4. Analysis paralysis
IT is an analytical discipline that requires the ability to break down complex problems and build up complex systems for solving them. But overanalyzing issues and postponing critical decisions can become an easy trap to fall into, observes Don Logan, CIO at accounting and business advisory firm Friedman LLP. “In times of need, pressure, and crisis, the true leader will rise and use their experience and skill to overcome obstacles,” he says. “The IT leader needs to be aware and diligent, recognizing the red flags.”
Although CIOs now have fingertip access to an abundance of statistics, metrics, insights, and advice, Logan believes that the sheer volume of available information can lead to indecision, stress, dissatisfaction, and paralysis. “In an IT leader’s world, this equates to low performance, slow or poor results, self-doubt, and decision fatigue,” he notes. “This is highly common and an easy trap.”
Logan feels that overanalyzing an issue is both unnecessary and counterproductive. “In a leadership role there’s no substitute for experience,” he maintains. Be intentional about limiting the amount of information you consume, he advises. “Less is more, and too much choice or information is stressful,” Logan says. “Recognizing analysis paralysis in yourself or others is a skill to master.”
5. Issuing orders instead of requesting solutions
When facing a serious obstacle, many IT leaders find it easier and more convenient to tell teams what to do instead of asking them to solve a problem on their own. The downside to this approach is that it effectively slams the door on innovative solutions while ensuring teams that will settle for mediocrity.
“We hire people who like to solve problems,” says Dirk Ziegener, vice president of engineering and technology at Studitemps, a German workforce-as-a-service company aimed at students and young professionals. “They’re also very, very good at it,” he adds.
Most IT experts and computer scientists are problem-solvers by nature. “Many of them probably learned specific algorithms to find the shortest and fastest way to reach a certain goal,” Ziegener explains. “By telling them exactly what they should do, you ask them to stop thinking; you ignore their talents and kill their motivation.”
Instead of micromanaging teams by telling them what they should do, explain the challenge to them, Ziegener advises. “Let them understand the problem and give them some context; answer all of their questions.”
IT leaders need to learn that they can depend on their staff to resolve most problems. “Provide your team with all the necessary information, then get out of their way and let them come up with a solution,” Ziegener suggests. “They will not disappoint you.”
6. Pigeonholing staff
Many CIOs appreciate having fast, easy access to experts in specific disciplines, yet some leaders take this preference too far by discouraging their treasured specialists from advancing into emerging fields. Pigeonholing is always a counterproductive approach because IT, by its very nature, always evolves.
“Well-motivated IT professionals usually want to keep adjusting and adapting to changes; they want to be on the leading-edge of technology,” says Rahul Mahna, virtual CIO and chief of managed security services in accounting firm EisnerAmper’s process, risk, and technology solutions unit. “Because they get labeled in an organization, after a few years they want to leave and will look elsewhere to keep current in the industry.”
Over time, the result can be both financially and operationally devastating. “There are tremendous costs associated with onboarding a new team member, integrating them into the fabric of an organization, and keeping them current in their skills,” Mahna explains. “By not allowing an individual to change roles and grow within an organization, there’s loss in talent and significant costs when they leave.”
Mahna says that when he brings new members onto his team, he works hard to keep abreast of their current roles, and also where they want to direct their careers.
“We encourage cross-pollination with other service lines and allow them to learn different skills as permitted,” he reports. “By allowing them to challenge themselves and learn new skills we get a three-fold benefit: Our employees tend to stay longer with our organization, they get to learn more skills and stay current on technology trends, and they become even more effective at their jobs because their view becomes more rounded as they understand the implications of technology changes incurred by all services lines.”
The upshot, he notes, is that the overall client experience is greatly enhanced.