I love promoting qualified and competent Information Technology (IT) professionals into leadership positions. It is one of the most fulfilling privileges of being an IT executive. I have had the pleasure of interviewing, hiring, and promoting many IT professionals during my 30-year career, and many of them have gone on to become executives themselves.
Studies have shown that IT professionals—i.e., geeks—in general are emotionally resilient, tough minded, and open to new ideas, and that they have a customer-service orientation (Lounsbury et al., n.d.). Over the years, as I have worked as a computer operator, a developer, a database administrator, a systems administrator, a project manager, and a program manager, I have found the results of this study to be true. I am proud to be a geek because we have the power to make an impact. The work we do improves lives.
In this chapter, I provide the criteria I look for when selecting a geek leader so that you can understand the characteristics required to succeed as a geek leader. Then, I also describe the geek leadership challenge. Finally, I provide an overview for this book to give you a roadmap for learning to be a better geek leader. My goal is to coach you on the characteristics needed to advance your career. My goal is to provide you with information that empowers you with confidence, enabling you to face and overcome leadership challenges.
Selecting a Geek Leader
When I hire and promote geeks into leadership positions, I look for answers to several questions concerning criteria that experts have found present in great leaders:
- 1. Does the geek have courage? Leaders need the mental and moral strength to take reasonable risks, persist during difficult times, and endure when situations seem difficult or dangerous. Leaders who are able to perform in the face of fear and difficulty inspire and motivate others. The passion to succeed fuels this courage.
- 2. Does the geek communicate well? Research has shown that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating (Rajkumar and KP, 2010). Leaders value the people around them and ensure that they receive the right information, in the right format, at the right time. Effective leaders listen closely before they respond, seeking understanding as well as feedback. They synchronize their responses with the stakeholder’s needs. A leader’s customers, team members, peers, and up-channel leadership are all his or her clients. Leaders restate crucial points for emphasis, requesting feedback as well as clarification to ensure understanding. Leaders establish a regular reporting rhythm utilizing the standard templates. They conduct regular meetings with their customers and their team members to review those reports.
- 3. Is the geek proactive? Leaders need to understand their priorities, then organize and execute in accordance with those priorities. Leaders take action to obtain realistic goals in a proactive manner. In order to deliver quality, effective leaders need to understand and implement the Deming Cycle:
- • Plan: Plan the work, making use of input from team members and from various other stakeholders. Leaders are responsible for envisioning and communicating the future state and inspiring their team members to achieve this vision.
- • Do: Do the job according to the strategy and the timetable.
- • Check: Check the work, making an assessment of quality as well as risk.
- • Act: Take action on the results of the assessment, ensuring quality and mitigating threats.
- 4. Is the geek capable of establishing and pursuing a unified vision? Leaders align their team’s tasks with the organization’s business objectives. Leaders comply with established policies and procedures for their team and their organization. Leaders must comply with both client requirements and business needs all at once. Leaders relate to people as individuals, no matter their function or position. They make sure everyone understands how their individual objectives align with the organization’s objectives.
- 5. Is the geek accountable? Leaders must take responsibility and hold their team members accountable. Leaders should know what is expected of them and use performance coaching to ensure their team members understand what is expected of them. Leaders must be capable of establishing a rhythm that results in meeting client requirements as part of a day-to-day routine:
- • Document the criteria for performance expected in a work guideline, SOP, or other document.
- • Train team members on the documented criteria. Do not hold individuals accountable for adhering to standards that have not been communicated through training.
- • Measure and document results as team members execute the tasks they were trained to perform.
- • Praise, incentivize, and reinforce achievement of standards, as well as redirect off- base performance as it happens.
- 6. Does the geek have personal credibility? Leaders need to be believable. They need the respect and trust of their customers, their managers, their peers, and their team members. They understand how their honesty, humility, and humor enable them to connect people at all levels within their organization.
- 7. Is the geek trustworthy and reliable? Leaders need to take a clear stance on issues and hold their ground. Management of trust is one of the essential factors in a leader’s perceived dependability.
- 8. Does the geek manage feelings? Charismatic leaders generate meaningful feelings in others. People feel that their job is more significant when they are the masters of their own behavior—that is, they feel competent. They feel a sense of comradery with their team mates. Leaders must be emotionally intelligent; they must be aware of their own feelings and their impact on the people around them.
- 9. Does the geek manage himself or herself well? Leaders are expected to have the ability to develop and modify habits to produce behaviors that result in organizational success. Self-management skills enable leaders to live a more efficient and effective daily life, break bad habits and obtain brand-new ones, complete difficult tasks, and obtain individual goals.
- 10. Does the geek lead by example? Leaders should model the actions they expect from their team members. Leaders set the example for continuous learning. They treat everyone fairly and with respect. Many people spend about 95% of their time thinking about themselves (Carnegie, 2010); leaders lead by spending time considering what they can do to meet the needs of others. Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not significant except for its impact on other lives.”
- 11. Can the geek manage risk? Leaders forecast risks and develop contingency as well as mitigation plans early. Leaders ask for assistance to make certain that risks are not realized—that they do not become problems. Leaders address and report both the good news and the bad news.
- 12. Is the geek a problem solver? Leaders create an environment in which issues are resolved at the lowest level. Effective leaders exercise Servant Leadership, solving their customers’, managers’, as well as team members’ problems before solving their own. Leaders search for creative solutions that enable everyone to succeed, creating synergistic solutions to problems. When leaders present problems to their managers and customers, they also present recommended solutions.
- 13. Is the geek capable of continuously improving processes? Leaders establish processes to gather and record lessons learned, continuously improving efficiency. Leaders identify and implement guides and tools that will improve their team’s capabilities. Leaders speak out, providing feedback to their management when processes are not working.
- 14. Does the geek understand the organization? Organizational behavior is the examination of both team and individual performance with respect to the organization. Leaders need to be aware of internal as well as external perceptions of the organization’s performance. Leaders who understand organizational behavior are more effective at leading change.
- 15. Does the geek balance work and life priorities? Leaders balance work requirements with personal and family requirements for both themselves and their team members.
They make sure their team members are refreshed and prepared to contribute to project delivery.
Not every candidate that I have promoted or hired meets every one of these criteria. As we discuss in Chapter 2, Why Geek Leadership Is Different, many of these attributes do not come naturally to geek leaders. The IT geek leaders who were successful had strong communications skills. Not all of them were strong technically, but they understood enough about the technology to hold their IT team members accountable and to communicate well with stakeholders. They demonstrated the courage to be pro active and to make process improvements. If they came from outside the organization, they made the effort to learn how things worked and how their projects aligned with the organization. The unsuccessful IT geek leaders could not connect with their team members. They could not establish a unified vision for their team and could not build personal credibility. Some were simply not accountable, behaved poorly, and did not set a good example.
Some call the skills needed to become an effective leader “soft skills.” They place a higher value on mastering technical skills, such as programming routers with Internetworking Operating System commands or designing databases using Structured Query Language. But “soft skills” are not easy, and “soft” does not equate to “weak.” The IT industry’s best and most effective leaders know how to inspire their teams, how to connect with their customers, and how to influence people and situations in a manner that gives them control and enables success. When a leader accomplishes those feats, it seems like magic. These people are powerful—there is nothing “soft” or “weak” about them, and their work is not “easy.”
The skills needed to be a great engineer, developer, or systems administrator do not help you become a great leader. If you feel you cannot identify with the leadership criteria presented above, and if you aspire to become a leader, then this book is for you. You can have the strength, power, and success of other successful IT geek leaders. To become a better leader, you need to develop new skills, a task you are perfectly capable of performing. By becoming an IT professional, you have demonstrated your power, your ability to learn complex concepts. If you apply yourself, you can also use this power to become an effective leader and earn the increased prestige and higher pay that you deserve. And I am here to help you along the way.
A mountain climber may set out to reach the peak of a high mountain range. He may set his sight on a destination—an elevation he has never achieved, perhaps one that no one has ever achieved. He trains, plans his journey, obtains his supplies, sets out along the trail. Along the way, he endures significant challenges and setbacks, perhaps facing extreme conditions, perhaps running into mountain lions, or bears, or even snakes. If he persists and survives, he reaches his goal.
Leadership is not a destination. There is no peak, no summit, because there is always more to learn and because there is no perfect leader. Leadership is about the journey itself. During your climb, you need to pay attention, because there are lessons to be learned along the way. There are things to discover about yourself, your team, your organization, and your world. You need the mindset of a student who is eager to learn about leadership, understanding that you will never know it all. Each leadership experience, each assent up the mountain, is an opportunity to learn something new, an insight about yourself that will make you a better climber, an observation that will help you mentor an aspiring leader on his or her first climb. Effective leaders are lifelong learners.