by John E. West

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

Aug 01, 200710 mins
IT Leadership

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.

This was an important step, since it represented the first time in years that many people had even been asked what needed fixing, let alone been given the opportunity to contribute to the solution. The youngest staff members were quickest to respond to the new culture, and they rapidly started to model this leadership trait themselves. The veterans in our organization took longer to adapt, and I had to earn their respect first. They wanted a better work environment as much as everyone else, but they adopted a “trust but verify” attitude to my leadership. I thought this was fair, and to earn their trust I made my decision-making as transparent as I could. I also held myself accountable along with everyone else when things didn’t go as planned.

2. Let Them Make Decisions

Empowerment is a horribly overused buzzword, and I didn’t ever use it with my team (the veterans would have mutinied). But empowering my staff—giving them authority to make decisions about their work—was the most valuable single thing I did to unlock the talent in my organization.

I knew from working with these people as a peer that they were incredibly talented and incredibly devoted. I also knew that they were far too reliant on a few leaders at the top to make all decisions. If we were to distinguish ourselves from our five sister centers and prepare for the future, we needed everyone’s input and expertise. But I couldn’t simply abandon the group to its own devices and expect good results. The team needed to be educated about what was important to the organization and how to exercise the freedom to make decisions that supported our goals.

I started with my core leadership team. As we faced decisions together in our daily and weekly meetings I would talk through my decision. If someone presented an issue I would always ask what they thought we should do. Then I asked a lot of questions that revealed the various angles I considered before making my decisions. These included questions about what other organizations were doing, what our user groups wanted or what we had done before in similar situations.

Each time we went through this exercise, the leadership team got better at answering the question, What do you think we should do? During these discussions, we often ended up back at the original recommendation. As the leadership team members gained more experience in this decision-making environment, they began to model the same behavior with their teams. Today, decisions are made using this process even by the most junior staff members. As a result, the organization reacts much faster than before to changes in project requirements or business demands, and decisions that do need executive involvement are well-researched and ready to implement when they’re presented for approval.

3. Teach Them Career Skills

The last big piece of the leadership puzzle that I emphasized was basic career skills: writing, speaking and career management.

In IT we spend a lot of time on technical education. But we spend almost no time teaching people the skills they’ll need to actually succeed. Instead, we fall back on a Darwinian sink-or-swim approach. Those who can teach themselves basic business skills or who have natural communication abilities and good career instincts are able to advance. Those who don’t, get stuck. This model is broken. It’s like teaching someone to mix colors and expecting them to paint like Rembrandt.

Effective writing and good speaking skills are the easiest for your staff to learn. My first step, which any leader can take immediately, was to demonstrate these skills myself. I made sure my writing, including e-mail, illustrated the easy, informative style I wanted my organization to adopt. I took the same approach to presentations and small group meetings. I also directed a portion of my organization’s training budget toward formal training in these areas, giving those who weren’t comfortable with learning under fire a more controlled setting to develop speaking and writing skills. One of the most significant results of this particular step was that we all had a common vocabulary for discussing the direction that written reports and presentations needed to go.

I also wanted each member of my team to have clear career goals and a plan to achieve them. I felt this would lead to more motivated employees who had a clear understanding of why what they were doing for the organization was good for them personally. It’s easy to convince people why they should take charge of their careers: Either you make the decisions about where your career goes and end up where you want, or you end up with the career someone else thinks you should have.

But developing a vision for one’s career is complex because our needs and interests naturally evolve over time. What you want today will probably not be what you want in five years, so you have to set out knowing that you’ll change the plan over time. And for the most part we aren’t taught to plan our careers; we are taught to enter the career assembly line in year one, take the promotions that magically come our way, and leave in year 30.

The approach I have taken is to work with my staff during performance reviews. I work to make all employees (especially the youngest) aware that they need to know what their next desired career step is and to honestly assess whether the skills they are learning will get them to that goal. As we plan together how to achieve that next step, we talk about career options, the assignments that will move them in various directions and the new skills they’ll need. This conversation helps them to put their career progression in perspective and has led to more than one significant change in direction for members of my team. For example, in the course of reviewing with one of my mid-level team members his average performance, we realized that part of the problem was that after 10 years in one role, he wasn’t challenged by or interested in his job anymore. Simply having the conversation was the stimulus he needed to move from a middle-of-the-road staffer to an energized leader in a new role on the technical staff.

This approach works even with late-career professionals who aren’t satisfied with where they believe they’ll end up or who want to do something new and challenging before they check out.

My organization has been asked to change rapidly in response to changes in funding and in its mission over the past several years. Thanks to the groundwork we laid when I started as director, we were ready.

I think one of the best measures of success for a leader in a strong technical organization is that he or she eventually is able to move into a primarily strategic role. I’m gratified to be in that position with my organization today, thanks to a team that is empowered and motivated.

Once you have a team—not just a collection of individual contributors—that operates in an environment of free and open communication, you can lead people to make appropriate decisions on their own. They will accept the challenge of making your organization successful today. But if you want to ensure that your organization continues to succeed over time, and that you train its next generation of leaders, you need to get your team members to put themselves on a career path that they ultimately control. When they have their eyes on the future, the future of your organization will be in good hands.

John West is the director of the Department of Defense High Performance Computing Center at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss. He is the author of The Only Trait of a Leader, a field guide to success for new engineers, scientists and technologists.