Enabling Future IT Leaders

10/01/2012

There are those lucky few: the ones who strive, thrive, and succeed in spite of the chaos and confusion in the ever-changing landscape of IT. For the rest of us, senior executives need to be mindful of what environment is best suited in helping emerging leaders grow. It’s not a complex equation to create an environment conducive to supporting and developing leadership, but it’s also not necessarily simple to bring about given the unique nature of the IT industry.

It helps to break things down into a definition of leadership and the three main areas that affect it and then to explore how those areas can create an environment that will best encourage young leaders.

The definition of leadership is a subject that has been studied and examined in great depth without the emergence of a clear, simple, definitive statement. Thousands of articles have been written on the subject of leadership, indicating there is much ongoing debate. For the purposes of this Executive Update, I’ll use a definition derived from Bruce Winston and Kathleen Patterson’s integrative definition of leadership.1

A leader is someone who:

  • Influences people
  • To work together willingly
  • In the pursuit of the organization’s objective or mission

It is the first and second bullet points that I believe are the key difference between leadership and management. A manager may ensure tasks are done in pursuit of an organization’s objective, but won’t necessarily influence people to work together willingly — and willingly is the key here.

The main areas that affect IT leadership are as follows:

  • People
  • Process
  • Technology

This list is created in order of importance. When the definition of leadership includes the ability to influence people, the people you work with clearly will have the greatest impact on your ability to lead. Process and technology both play a role and, in IT in particular, create challenges above and beyond other industries and departments where the rate of change is much less than in IT.

PEOPLE

Allowing emerging leaders to develop their skills requires that they have the right people around them to be able to exercise those skills. As an example, it may be difficult for a young person to lead effectively when he or she is working with a group of older workers from a generation that may believe, rightly or wrongly, that more mature people should be in charge.

For senior executives who want to help new leaders emerge, they need to be conscious of the attitudes and mindsets of the staff that the leader will be working with. It is not simply a case of finding staff members who are compliant; that’s not going to help a young leader learn. There must be some challenges, but forcing a young leader to work with a stalwart developer with poor personal skills will simply frustrate and undermine the young leader who is trying to exert his or her influence. A single person can be an extremely disruptive influence in a team and can affect the others in that team, in turn undermining the efforts of a young leader who shows promise. Therefore, a key step in supporting young leadership is ensuring that the leader is working with people who will be supportive and open to direction; who will not be deliberately difficult and belligerent but will challenge the young leader when necessary.

It is not just about getting rid of all the troublemakers, however. A young leader still needs to be challenged by people who are older and wiser, while not necessarily in more senior positions. There is much to be learned from the journeyman system administrator who has been working in the industry for more than 20 years and knows what works, what doesn’t, and has learned from many mistakes in the past. Having such a person around to support a young leader can help him or her to avoid making well-meaning but naive decisions.

It’s also important for a young leader to understand the limits of his or her knowledge. One of the major challenges in the IT industry is that it is full of very smart people. More often than not, a young leader will be working with people who have a much stronger understanding of their specific discipline. It’s nigh impossible to be an expert in all areas of IT, so young leaders need to rely on the advice and support of the team and learn to work in an environment where they will not know everything and in fact may be working with people who are smarter. It’s a lesson of humility that any leader in IT must learn. Matching a young leader with a wiser, smarter expert in a particular field will help the young leader to learn how to take advice without taking offense. Leaders need to accept being influenced by others in their field of expertise, to earn trust and respect, and then be in a position to exert influence and show true leadership.

PROCESS

There can be no process without people to make it happen, which is why people come before process. When it comes to process, the particular challenge for a young leader in IT is the abundance and immaturity of the processes that exist in our industry. The world of IT is relatively new in comparison to more established industries such as engineering or manufacturing. Therefore, processes within IT are less mature. It’s ironic that the concept of waterfall software development is considered a traditional approach, when it was first coined as recently as 19702. Compare that to bridge building, which has been happening for hundreds of years. In addition, there is a whole range of processes that have emerged in the past decade with the agile movement that have radically changed how people work. Some of these new methods have resulted in impressive success stories, while others have yielded unmitigated disasters. What this industry seems to lack is consistency in approach, which is a reflection of its immaturity.

The question, however, is what process is best suited to helping a young leader grow and develop. There is no single answer to this, of course. As an industry, IT seems to have a short memory and we all too easily forget that there is no such thing as a silver bullet. An appreciation of the fact that there is no perfect process is an important point for young leaders to understand. Assuming that following a set process marks a good leader and shows leadership skills is a mistake. A true leader knows when to follow a process and when to depart from that process. What’s most important is that the approach taken is one that the team is willing to use and that will help to achieve the company’s objective or mission.

A vital lesson for young leaders to learn is that a process is only a means to an end; that no process is perfect and sometimes you have to work it out yourself. To help them learn that lesson, young leaders need to know that there might be times they have to break the rules. Senior executives should provide young leaders with a framework rather than a strict process so that young leaders are forced to improvise and fill the gaps rather than struggle against a prescriptive process that will inhibit their ability to truly lead.

TECHNOLOGY

Last but not least is the technology that young leaders and their staff will have to work with in order to achieve the goals of the organization, whether it is the technology they need to use or the technology that is being created. There are two main challenges for young leaders when it comes to technology: the breadth and rate of change.

Starting with breadth, there is such a range of choices that it is often difficult for young leaders to fully grasp all the pros and cons of what is available in terms of existing software (i.e., applications), hardware, networking technologies, databases, and programming languages. If you don’t understand the tools of the trade, how can you lead the people that are using those tools? If you are faced with having to choose a particular technology, how are you going to know it’s going to be the right one — both short and long term? Even if you have expert advice, what happens if you have opposing views, which is more often than not the case? There is no real answer to these questions, which is why it’s such a challenge for young leaders; much more so in IT than in other industries where the breadth of options and the rate of change are much less.

To help young leaders develop is not a matter of providing the right technology; rather, it is about creating a safe and stable environment in which they can grow, develop, make mistakes, and learn. Changing technologies just because something new emerges can be counterproductive to both young leaders and their teams. Change is difficult for everyone involved. Change creates instability and uncertainty, which places additional pressure on leaders, both new and experienced, to ensure they are still exerting influence over their team and that the team is still willing to work toward a common goal. Changing the landscape by changing the technology can change the willingness of the team to work together.

On the other hand, failing to adopt a new technology can also have negative effects that make it particularly difficult for young leaders to know which is the right path. There is no real way to compare one technology to another unless you implement both, and that’s rarely practical.

For young leaders, dealing with regular or significant change will make it harder for them to maintain stability and exert influence — the first elements of leadership. However, in the world of IT, not being able to adapt to change could have a considerable negative impact on a company. Senior executives need to be aware of how difficult it is for people to adapt to change and provide an environment where change is limited or is introduced gradually to allow young leaders to focus on their people skills first and foremost, followed by process and, finally, technology. Both process and technology are a means to an end, and it’s important that young leaders aren’t distracted from the objectives of the company by the constant stream of emerging technologies.

CONCLUSION

Young leaders in IT face many challenges — more so than in other industries — making it both harder and more rewarding. Senior executives need to be aware of how hard it is for young leaders to find their way and they need to help to develop leadership skills. They can do this in three simple ways:

  1. First, provide the right support in terms of people the young leader will be dealing with. These people should be smart and supportive yet not compliant.
  2. Second, rather than dictating a process, senior executives should provide a framework that sets important limits and guidelines but allows the young leader to exercise his or her judgment in some areas and to learn from mistakes without jeopardizing too much.
  3. Finally, senior executives should ensure there is a stable base of technology that only changes when necessary for a competitive advantage, not just because there’s something new on the market.

Given an environment with the right people, a framework, and stable technical base, young leaders will have the best environment in which to grow, develop, and become the IT leaders of the future.

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1. Winston, Bruce E., and Kathleen Patterson. “An Integrative Definition of Leadership.” International Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2006.

2. Royce, W.W. “Managing the Development of Large Software Systems: Concepts and Techniques.” Proceedings of IEEE WESTCON, IEEE, 1970.