Thursday, April 25, 2013

Managing to Neutral?

Celebrating success in the American culture has become somewhat of the norm.  In sports, we see athletes with carefully choreographed dances, moves, and displays for every type of good play they might make. (Now that the NBA playoffs are in full swing, I think it's only a matter of time before someone dunks the ball and then backflips all the way back down the court like a martial arts expert.)  We have award shows for almost anything you can imagine.  There is even an award called "The Razzy", which celebrates the worst movies of the year.  Yes, if you make a terrible movie you might still take home a trophy, even if it is shaped like a raspberry.

Why do people act like that you might ask?  It all comes down to the need all of us have for recognition.  We need to call attention to any good thing that we do so that others will validate us and reaffirm our importance in the grand scheme of everything.  If you don't believe what I've just said, challenge me on the comments portion of the blog.  Name a profession, sport, activity, hobby, or basically anything else.  You name it, I'll find the award/recognition that goes with it.

When it comes to IT, the situation is not much different.  There are numerous awards given out for excellence.  However, many of them focus on CIOs or other senior management.  There is almost no award that I can think of for a "rank and file" IT employee other than possibly a certification.  So how does IT celebrate its successes, of which there are many?  The answer is that IT people do not celebrate themselves.  In fact, they seem very reluctant to do so.  Given that IT is so critical to every company, why would IT employees be so averse to "spiking the football"?

The answer lies in what is now decades of managing to neutral.

IT services are more numerous than the items found in Aisles 1-18 in Home Depot.  Yet, the expectations for IT have evolved in the minds of their customers in much the same way as people look at electrical utilities.  When it comes to electricity, people just expect the lights to come on when they flip the switch.  If the lights don't come on, the utility has failed.  If they do come on, well, that was just expected.  A perfect example of "managing to neutral."

With IT, people just expect that their systems will always work.  Email should always be up, the network should never go down, hardware should never break, and applications should always be working.  When you work in this kind of environment there is very little opportunity to raise the bar.  After all, how can you exceed expectations when people always expect everything to work all of the time?

The answer to that question is marketing.  Yes, IT groups should become very good at marketing all that they do well.  For the same reason that political advertisements, both positive and negative, work is because people believe what they are told.  Especially so when the message is delivered in an entertaining way.  I have found over and over that my customers' satisfaction with the IT products and services that we deliver goes up markedly when we communicate our excellence to them on a regular basis.  This principle is so old that it dates back over 5,000 years to the times of the Egyptian pharaohs.  With their clay tablets and stone stele,  they made sure that their people were always aware of just how great they ruled the land and protected them from their enemies.

So you know that I think that IT groups should market themselves to their customers on a regular basis.  That much is true, but it will not be easy.  This is because most IT employees are diametrically opposed to what they consider as "bragging".  I can best sum this up by recounting a conversation I had with one of my managers about 10 years ago.  I said to him, "Dave, why don't you work with me to write up the successes you've had on several of your multimillion dollar projects?  After all, you and your teams have done fantastic work and you deserve recognition!"  Dave just looked at me and said in a deadpan voice, "Christopher, my work speaks for itself."  Talk about a challenge - I never did get Dave to do any marketing of his many successes.

It won't be easy to get your people, at least at first, to draw attention to all the good they do.  They have had years, if not decades, of working under the belief that no-one is interested in their success other than it led to a continual availability of systems and services.  They believe that their customers just want things to work. 

You can change that all with a good (and sincere) marketing program.  I'm sure you'll have a lot to talk about.  Remember that the perception of you and your teams is what YOU make of it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The High Performance Pressure Cooker

Throughout my career I have striven to build high-performing teams.  Since becoming a CIO a decade ago, the need to find and nurture great management talent in my organizations has become one of my most important duties.  After all, when someone achieves a position at the director level or above their success is driven (or not driven) by the actions of their team as a whole.

Building a stellar team is difficult enough.  If you've read my previous posts about organizational development and the "Talent Triangle", the selection process alone can be daunting.  But once that process is complete the effort shifts to managing the individuals of the team in a way where they can be successful but always improving.

Contrary to popular belief, highly successful people are not good at managing themselves.  Oh, they can do quite a bit for others and the organization and usually have the talent needed to mentor and coach their teams as well.  But handling them personally and as individuals is another matter.

In nature, packs of wolves are generally ruled by alpha males and females.  At least in more ancient times, humans were ruled by Alphas as well - we called them chieftains, kings/queens, warlords, etc.  Whether animal or human, Alphas have very strong opinions about how things should go and the way the world should be.  They are competitors and share the quality of wanting to succeed.  They have that uniquely human motivation of wanting to win.  If you succeed in building a leadership team of high performers, in a very real sense you have put a group of Alphas together in close proximity.  Is this a good thing?  Yes, but.  The talent can take you forward quickly but the organization becomes very fragile.

Several recent leaders and companies including Jack Welch, Lee Iaccoca, 3M, and HP (unwillingly) have realized the problems that will inevitably arise from this situation.  Alphas, by nature, will always test and probe where they fall in the "pecking order", no matter the level of competition.  What does this mean for you as the overall leader of the group?  It means that no matter what you do, no matter how great you are as a leader, how much time you put into coaching, organizational conflict and friction will arise.

If this isn't happening in your organization, if you have complete harmony, you're not doing your job as a leader or a CIO.

Eventually members of your group of Alpha leaders will become dissatisfied or disgruntled.  This event is tough to swallow because you know how talented they are and just how much potential they possess.  You may be able to ameliorate things in the short term through money, different assignments, praise, or something else that I haven't mentioned. But eventually, in every case, it will become time for some of your Alphas to move on.  That is true nature of the beast, so to speak, when you dare to create a top caliber team.  (Bill Belichek has mastered the art of winning with Betas, but that is a different story)

Of course, you could ignore what I'm saying or even disagree.  Maybe you think you *can* hold it all together.  Yet, in my 20 years of experience I have found that eventually the pressure will build to a dangerous level in your management team.  By proxy, that dysfunction will work its way down through your whole organization.  If you do nothing, something is going to blow.  Maybe it will be internal backstabbing, counterproductive conflict, sabotage, or outright conflict.  You have to be ready to release the pressure, which means letting some of your Alphas move on.  Like a cup of hot coffee, you have to let it cool just a little bit before taking a drink unless you liked getting burned.

Yes, this advice will put you in the constant loop of having to find top talent.  But as a CIO, isn't that your job?