Three Ways to Motivate Your IT Team (That Really Work)

An IT director tells how he turned a group of uninspired complainers into enthusiastic contributors.

Five years ago, I rejoined the Department of Defense (DoD) High Performance Computing Center in Vicksburg, Miss., as its director. I had left two years earlier; having spent my entire career there, I needed to have new experiences. But I also left because the organization was dominated by deep, long-standing conflicts between the IT staff and its outsourced contractors. It doesn't take long for that kind of environment to wear you down. My own attitude had worsened to the point that I was becoming part of the problem. It was definitely time to move on.

I had been an individual contributor with a minor leadership role—managing the small, in-house staff that oversaw the contractors. When the leadership of the supercomputing center's parent organization changed, I was asked by the director to return as the supercomputing center's leader. I wasn't the least bit sure it would turn out well. But I had voted with my feet once, and I was eager for the challenge of creating something better.

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My team was full of talented, dedicated, hardworking people with extraordinary gifts that had not been cultivated. The role of the supercomputing center had evolved over the years, but the staff had not been realigned. Rather, as new tasks were assigned from the top, many staff members ended up with jobs for which they weren't well suited. But reorganizing them wasn't enough. In the years before I left we had spent a lot of time focused on the administrative activities endemic to large government programs and not enough time building teams, sharing ideas and focusing on the future. When I came back on board, we were competing for funds, new projects and recognition with five other DoD supercomputing centers. Although historically we had been in a strong position to win new work, that was starting to change. Most of the team needed training in soft skills that would help members communicate their ideas to each other and to our business colleagues. I needed to turn 100 complainers, watchers and waiters into leaders.

The guiding principle of my effort was to wake up and put to work the talent that I knew existed within both the in-house staff and the contractor organizations. My method was to set an example by modeling the three practices I knew the team needed to engage in to turn us around: good communication, decisiveness and attention to the basic skills necessary to succeed at any career.

1. Get Them Talking

The first leadership trait I recognized we were sorely lacking was effective communication. The in-house and contractor teams had been isolated by conflict for a long time. Each side had critical operational and technical information the other side needed, but the adversarial culture prevented the smooth flow of that information. Neither side felt involved in what the other was doing, nor did either side feel any responsibility to make the other successful.

I instituted a series of regular tactical meetings at all levels of the organization, including daily and weekly operational meetings with the top leadership of the in-house and contractor staff. At these meetings I emphasized making daily decisions in the context of our longer-term goals, and we talked openly about problems and solutions. We solved problems as a team, picking solutions based on technical merit rather than which organization they came from.

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