Being a great leader takes hard work and dedication, but most of the necessary skills can be learned if you're willing to put in the time and effort. Here are 13 ways to help transform any manager, in IT or beyond, into becoming a better leader.
By Rich Hein
In the world of tech and non-tech managerial roles, if you want a seat at the big table or you have aspirations of greatness, then certain leadership skills are necessary to take you to the next level. But how can you actualize leadership and define what makes a great leader? We spoke with authors, industry and IT career experts to find out what you can do to build your leadership skills to world-class.
Find a Good Mentor in Your Organization
“On context, you want to understand what it means to be an executive in your company-say by seeking out a mentor,” says Bryan Kirschner, director of Apigee Institute, a research and strategy organization. Finding an internal mentor is a great way to improve your leadership skills and provide a roadmap for success in management in your current company. Internal mentors are there when you are dealing with unfamiliar territory or when you want to bounce an idea off of someone, and are normally more senior in the organization and can help guide you through the internal politics of the company. This type of insight can save you many years of tears and wasted effort.
Create a Safe-to-Speak-Out environment in your department. This concept comes back to adjusting your corporate culture for empowerment.
Employees need to and should feel encouraged to understand that if they have issues or concerns they won’t be laughed out of the room or simply ignored by addressing them.
Communicating to your team the importance of their positions and roles and how they fit into the big picture is another way to motivate and empower employees. While our natural inclination as leaders may be to shield our employees from the all the internal politicking that goes on in most companies, we can in fact empower people and promote bonding by letting them in on some of managements internal discussions and becoming part of the decision process.
According to Brush, the most difficult problem facing IT these days is employee retention. Creating an environment that people want to work in is crucial to keeping your team together. Think about how many times a team member leaves and then the budget disappears and the position is never refilled. While you can’t stop budget cuts, you can do your very best to keep your employees on track career-wise and happy with their work.
Develop Your Strategy Skills
One of the biggest challenges facing IT leadership according to Ford Myers, an executive career coach and author of Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring, is the alignment of technology solutions and overall business objectives. As IT management roles continue to evolve, tech leaders have to become better at this alignment in order to be perceived as a vital strategic partner with the company’s leadership. Technology leaders also need to, as Myers puts it, “embrace the concept that IT is a tool to drive business success, and not an end in itself.” Our experts offer these further tips on improving your strategic thinking.
Brush recommends a book by the author Michael Porter entitled Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage to get a better understanding of what strategy is. “If you accept the fact that some of Porters examples will be dated and you focus on the key concepts, these will be great resources. These are timeless strategic concepts that will help someone to get their arms around what they should be thinking about when thinking strategically.”
Work on a Business Case Study – Another tip offered by Burns, “A great way to improve strategic thinking is to participate with a team on a reality-based case study, the classic MBA business case,” says Burns. If you can’t do this in your workplace then find a non-profit to volunteer your time on order to get your case-study experience.
Develop Your Communication Skills
You can’t be a great leader if you can’t articulate your point effectively to people. According to Burns, poor communication skills are something he sees over and over again with IT leaders in particular. “This sounds like a stereotype cliché, but many IT professionals – and senior IT leaders – do not communicate clearly. As a career coach and resume writer, I see this firsthand, and usually I see it in two versions, number one is extremely detailed answers when all I’m asking for is a high-level interview; or number two, which are extremely detailed explanations of bureaucratic decision-making processes, sometimes called ‘insider baseball.” says Burns.
If you are constantly using negative reinforcement or you don’t illustrate the importance and relevance of what your team is doing and how it fits into the big picture then you aren’t leading right and you will find your team member turnover increasing. “The shortage of highly skilled IT workers puts a premium on keeping the best,” says Brush.
What’s the best way to improve your communication skills? According to our experts the items below are examples of a few ways to improve your communicative prowess.
Practice, Practice, Practice – If you want to practice verbal communications outside the office, try Toastmasters or an acting class. If the classroom setting is where you do your best learning, then check out schools in your area, colleges and universities offer public speaking courses as well.
Consider Who You’re Talking To – “A long time ago, when I started out in engineering, I had this problem of overly detailed technical explanations. An exasperated senior manager once told me – “I am asking you for the time, and you are telling me how to build a watch,” says Burns. As an IT leader you need to speak several different languages, and need to be able to translate complex technical jargon into digestible bits for people in the business and other areas of a company. This is often a major stumbling block to new tech leaders.
Work with an Expert – Expert help is available in all areas from expert individuals and companies that specialize in coaching people in better communication techniques. “They work like fitness trainers in a gym and they’ll transform you into an effective communicator,” says Burns.
Become a Better Listener
As Stephen R. Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Most of us have dealt with colleagues or managers who don’t hear a word they have heard or may think they know it all. For anyone in business, feeling like your voice isn’t being heard is a motivational killer. Here’s what our experts had to say on how a manager can learn to become a better listener.
Stop thinking that you have the best or a better answer. When you do this you start thinking about your answer and not theirs. Keep an open mind and listen.
Remind yourself how important it is for an employee or a colleague to know how much you value what they have to say.
Don’t Interrupt. Sometimes we may know or think we know what someone else is going to say before they finish the sentence. Let them finish it anyway. Let those around you express themselves completely, and then pause before responding. Don’t cut people off.
Engage them by asking open ended questions, like, “Tell me more about the reporting package,” and allow them to elaborate on the topic.
And of course make eye-contact, lean-in and ignore the distractions around you. If you can’t fully focus then move the conversation somewhere more quiet and appropriate.
Be a Better Networker
It’s no secret that there are many in IT who chose their profession because they like working with machines and code better than they like working with people. Unfortunately, this mindset won’t fly if you want to be a better leader. That’s not to say introverts can’t be great leaders, but it often means doing things that go against their natural tendencies. “One of the biggest challenges is that in a world where 75% of people are extroverts there is a tendency to view a quiet, introspective introvert as unsuitable to leadership. This is a wrongheaded conclusion, but it does not take away from the reality of there being a bias against selecting an introvert for a leadership position,” says Brush.
According to Brush the key to overcoming this is to work against being typecast at the office. She recommends that instead of declining those group lunches and company events, you should attend them.
Be Consistent and Honest
Part of being consistent and honorable is managing by the age-old adage, lead by example. Your workers will emulate what you do and put out there for others to emulate. Being a consistent and honest leader lets those who work for you and around you know what to expect in any given situation. This in turn gives them a baseline for better decision making when you aren’t around.
Know Yourself/Be Authentic
“Employees don’t respect phonies and being respected by your employees is something a leader can never lose. If he does watch productivity and quality plummet,” says Brush.
Authenticity on the other hand allows you to better connect and build trust with your team and coworkers. It also allows people to better understand who you are and what you expect from them. “…in order to use knowledge correctly you need to know yourself. You won’t be a great leader if the context you are in forces you to be someone you’re not, “Kirschner.
“If a leader is micro-managing they will fail because it is impossible to focus on the bigger picture and to micro-manage at the same time. You are either in the weeds of detail or you are managing a department. Also if you have an employee that needs to be micro-managed you should be contemplating how your success can be limited by this, “says Brush.
“In my experience, interviewing dissatisfied employees, this might be the #1 thing that drives talent out the door, and not just IT people. I hear this complaint often,” says Burns.
Surround Yourself With People Smarter Than You
Always being the smartest person in the room is hard to maintain in the world of technology, there is so much moving at a break-neck pace. There aren’t enough hours in the day to know and keep up with it all. This means you need to build your team with people who complement your skill set.
Always Be Learning
If you aren’t regularly educating yourself in your market and specialty, you will quickly be left behind. Take stock of your skills, decide where you need work and go after it. Maybe you need to learn more of the business-side of your organization or you want to improve your public speaking skills. Whatever it is, don’t wait. People often say lead by example, many of your subordinates and coworkers will take their cues from you. If they see that you take learning seriously they are more likely to as well.
The list here isn’t all-inclusive and we’d love to hear how you facilitate better leadership in your organization or your personal career.
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Rich Hein is Managing Editor for CIO.com. He covers IT careers.