Monday, July 11, 2011

IT Superstars - Who Needs 'Em?

The answer is - "We all do"

It is not an easy exercise to define what makes a stellar IT resource.  Because they come in all different flavors - awesome programmer, superstar analyst, omniscient DBA - there is no one stereotype.  Probably the best way I know to describe an IT "A" player is to say that they are the type of people that get things done.  I'm not talking about just showing up to work every day.  I'm talking about creating order from chaos, "operationalizing" vague goals, and solving crises in the middle of night.  All done with no excuses, just results.

All that I have said so far is not likely to come as a surprise.  But this next part will.  IT superstars are usually the hardest of all employees to manage.  They are often "problem children" who are difficult to satisfy, require constant attention, and continually stretch the rules.  While this may sound sensational, my over 20 years of observation of top IT performers has confirmed this truth over and over again.

As a CIO I have striven to build teams that can perform at the highest levels.  I've done this knowing that I will spend over half my time carefully leading and tending to these individuals.  Rare has been the day when I'm not mentally exhausted after creating/managing challenging goals, refereeing conflicts, giving meaningful praise, or managing strong emotions.  Contrary to many leadership books that I've read, top performers are not self-sustaining.  They are like hot rod cars - they are built to go turbo but need constant tuning and adjustment in order to run efficiently.  Ultimately these people will help create a world-class IT organization that can handle most any challenge, current and future.

So doesn't every leader in every organizational realize this truth?  Not by a long shot.  There are many IT leaders who believe that the best people to hire are what I refer to as "Honda Civics".  These types of employees are, as you would expect, very reliable and require very little in the way of maintenance and tuning.  You can hire a "Civic" and they will show up every day (for years or decades) and do their jobs with nary a complaint, hardly making a wave larger than a ripple.  But these people will rarely, if ever, rise above an average level or take your IT capabilities to a whole new level.

The importance of having a strong, adaptive IT organization has become quite apparent with the amount of automation that has occurred in the U.S. and throughout the world over the last decade.  We should all take a look at what our IT leaders are doing when it comes to talent acquisition and development.  If things are too smooth, if there is no "buzz" coming from that area then your company has probably hired a fleet of Civics.  Not a good situation to be in if you are looking for IT to be a prime facilitator in efforts to differentiate from the competition and evolve...


  1. The analogy between hot rod cars and high-maintenance employees is pretty insightful! Oddly enough, I always used car analogies when explaining IT concepts to clients. It seemed like something that people always understood and could identify with.

  2. I imagine all of the people in an organization as part of a fleet. Just as there are vehicles (trucks, tractors, cars) for specialized tasks, so are there different types of skill sets.

    I really liked using the analogy of hot rod cars because of what I've seen in NASCAR and drag racing. Those people are constantly tuning and re-tuning the machines in order to keep them at the highest operating levels. It looks like a huge effort but it's worth it to see the drivers zip around the tracks at 200mph plus.

    The "Honda Civic" employees are nice (and necessary) but they are only built to do so much. Don't try to ask them to be exceptional. If if they wanted to, and they usually don't, the capability is not in them.

    Another point that I couldn't cover in the post is that the "Honda Civics" will rarely hire a Ferrari into their organization. As a company, when you have the Civics in charge of hiring you are in real trouble...

  3. Civics don't like to be compared to Ferraris, for sure...