6 meta-leadership skills for IT and technical professionals

Credit: Twentyeighty Strategy Execution

A meta-skill is a blend of individual skills that apply to a wide variety of circumstances and help you achieve desired results.

When we think of the skills it takes to lead today and make strategies a reality, we usually think of relational skills such as communication, influencing, motivation, political awareness, negotiation, conflict management, critical thinking and cultural awareness, along with general leadership and management skills. But are we missing the forest for the trees?

These relational skills have been taught in corporate education programs for decades and have recently been modernized using ingenious approaches like role-playing, gamification and virtual reality. Even with new technology in (or in place of) the classroom, we need just look at the trends of the last five years of Chaos Reports to deduce that we’re still struggling to succeed in project-based work. 

The Chaos Reports show that we are consistently reporting about 30% of projects as successful, with over 70% coming in as “challenged” or even “failed.”  The article breaks down the survey results to show the story by project size — about 60% of small projects are considered a success, while less than 5% of large or very large projects are considered successful. In an interesting twist, they also compare Waterfall (sequential, step-wise) and Agile (more iterative and collaborative) approaches, and Agile wins with an average across the board increase of 18%.

Interesting numbers for sure, and with all of the training out there, why aren’t we seeing improvements? It comes down to the way we are training leaders.

No matter whether we are using the latest technology or tried-and-true facilitator-led training, we generally teach leadership by ingredient. A leadership training program today might include a module on communication, a class on critical thinking and a negotiation simulation, for example. Upon completion, the new leader is expected to not only communicate, think critically and negotiate, but to do so simultaneously and adaptively depending on the circumstance.

This is an unrealistic expectation! Just knowing the ingredients does not automatically make you a Michelin Star Chef. It is about mastering the technique to blend the ingredients and knowing how the ingredients interact and play off of each other — and we are not training that way — yet.

There are six relational skills that IT leaders must experience and practice to successfully become the leaders they are expected to be.  And these are not ingredient skills — they are really meta-leadership skills. A meta-skill is a blend of individual skills that apply to a wide variety of circumstances and help you achieve desired results.

The six skills

There are six emerging meta-leadership skills that position IT and technical professionals for success:

  • Manage alignment: Align your work, culture, structure and internal politics, and keep them aligned as the world changes around you.
  • Be an interpreter: Listen to strategy and speaking tactics — and vice-versa — to keep the message aligned.
  • Learn to innovate: Discern when and how to bend the rules to pursue an innovative idea that is aligned to the overall business strategy and could move you forward.
  • Think ahead — way ahead: Think several moves ahead of your challenges, anticipating trends and how they might impact the business and the work.
  • Leverage your networks: Navigate the politics of the organization, understand the interactions, and win the hearts and minds of those enduring change.
  • Making decisions (the right, right ones and quickly): Analyze market drivers to help inform smart business decisions that make your strategy work.

Why meta-leadership skills?

We have been training leaders using “leadership” training for ages, but as time changes, so does our view of leadership. We have been struggling to define what makes a “good leader,” but all we’ve done is break down the concept of leadership into teachable traits.

When I was in the U.S. Air Force, leadership was taught using the “leadership by example” approach. We studied Sun Tzu and The Art of War, George Patton and even Winston Churchill, with the hope that if we studied enough exemplary leaders, we would become them. This worked fine in that case because the challenges we faced followed similar “rules” as those we studied.

As I transitioned out of the military and into the commercial world, leadership training took a “leadership by ingredient” route. We were taught individual skills such as management, vision, integrity, communication, negotiation and so on. This is a great way to learn and master each element of leadership, but it falls short in preparing new leaders to blend multiple skills together to accomplish their work.

It’s time to start teaching meta-leadership skills and preparing our emerging leaders for the next level — to really lead on their own terms, in their own way, and to become leaders we want to follow. Focusing on these six skills is the first step toward training the next generation of great leaders.

Over the coming weeks I will explore each skill individually.

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