Something's wrong...

Rob Preston (VP and Editor-in-Chief, Information Week) recently challenged our corporate neglect of All Things Educational. Responding to the oft-heard complaint that skilled workers are hard to find, Mr. Preston rightly points his editorial finger at executives who moan-and-groan about a skills shortage yet fail to fund training budgets and/or support career development plans for their current employees. From his February 29 editorial:

If "people are our most important resource," as employers are wont to proclaim, why do most of them expect this precious asset to show up gift wrapped on day one, and to increase in value with little effort on their part? In InformationWeek's most recent IT Salary Survey, whose full results we'll release in April, only 28% of the 13,880 IT pros we polled said they expect to receive additional education or training as one of their employee benefits this year.

Something's wrong here, and it has nothing to do with a skills shortage.

My commentary concentrates upon a sub-set of this issue: the paucity of consistent management training in an industry that cherishes technical skills but is confounded by the inability of supervisors to adequately manage their cherished technologists.

Mr. Preston's sermon equally applies to IT leadership: good managers do not "grow on trees," nor are they miraculous fruit from profitable company trees – they are the result of investment (time and money). Some of us have greatly benefited from an association with management excellence in our careers; we have learned by modeling those behaviors. However, the great majority of technology managers stumble through their crisis-ridden workdays, wondering (sometimes aloud) why tech teams (and projects/schedules) go so stunningly awry.

One engineering manager, a ten-year management veteran, recently confided, "I've never been coached, not once." When I inquired further, his supervising director sidestepped responsibility by admitting he had never been trained, either.

"We learn by making mistakes," he said unapologetically.

However, as managers and directors, we can choose a different approach.

This... tangled mess of Traffic Signals Night Highway Blur
 

As a business coach, the "default choice" quickly becomes the key complaint of executives: inadequate middle managers who were once very successful individuals but, once promoted to management with little (or no) training, are perceived poorly. No one is there to help them bridge the obvious gap between excellence at the individual level and excellence as a manager.

The reasons are many: budget and time constraints, understaffed HR departments, a focus upon execution (as if team leadership is only a minor contributor to operational success). More often than not, however, it is a common blind spot on the part of executive teams composed of individuals who, in their careers, learned management techniques by observing others and not from any specific training sessions.

Myth #1: Management training is expensive and time-consuming.

While it is true, as with any professional discipline, that expertise is harvested over time, there are basic management practices that can be quickly communicated to your management team. During the past decade, as I've coached teams (large and small, in a variety of industries and geographies), I now believe there are ten fundamental principles.# These should become the core agenda at your next staff meeting, or part of that agenda on a regular basis:

  • 3 Decision-making Models
  • Escalation Strategies & one Template
  • Problem-solving Techniques (Root Cause) - systems
  • Conflict Resolution approaches - individuals and teams
  • 15-minute Prioritization (and re-prioritization) Method
  • Communication Strategies throughout the organization
  • Active Listening: the Stethoscope Metaphor
  • Interviewing to complete a Team
  • The Innovation Sandbox
  • The Problem of Time (resource allocation)

Myth #2: IT professionals aren't good at "the people stuff."

Human behavior isn't easy to understand. Some teams click, others don't. However, our avoidance of the subject makes the challenge seem more daunting than it needs to be. As parents, we insist that our teens take lessons before giving them the keys to the family car. Music teachers force us to practice the scales. In short, we know and reinforce the value of practiced proficiency in our homes and our lives, yet, at work – when managers and their teams begin to struggle, we're more inclined to discipline and/or replace them than to ask if they have been taught the basics.

However, as managers and directors, we can choose another approach.

Too Many Traffic Signals Night Highway Blur
 

Myth #3: Good teams don't need exceptional managers, they just need us to stay out of their way.

This is the quintessential rationalization by leaders who don't understand the reasons why good teams excel while others (composed of equally talented individuals) never meet our expectations. As I've previously observed with several clients, even an All-Star team can improve, if they have a coaching staff that knows how to take them to the next level.

Some of us have been fortunate to work, at some point in our careers, for a superb manager who served as our role model.

Mine was at Cadence Design Systems in the 90′s, and I still recall his lessons as I coach others. And the more fortunate are those of us who have actually worked for companies with formal management training: the 3-day offsite for new managers that I completed at Synopsys in the late 90′s included a curriculum that continues to serve me well. I mention these personal experiences, not to applaud my own background but as evidence that solid management training is not "black magic" but can and should be provided to new leaders in every company.

A "coherent" management approach is defined as a set of shared practices within an organization, reinforced over time.

Management methods can vary widely between experienced managers and directors who, in the vacuum, have established their own approaches. While this is certainly preferable to the absence of any recognizable leadership methodology, it is fundamentally important for an organization to share a common vocabulary, and a common set of agreed-upon behaviors (i.e., a constitution governing the regular "business of the day") in order to consistently perform at an optimal level.

Summary

Management training, for any organized group tasked with important work, is neither a luxury nor an unreachable objective. Without a basic set of shared practices, individual managers and teams struggle to govern themselves. Each IT leader must, therefore, provide a coherent management framework, addressing the ten basic skills noted above, to ensure that their organization has the tools it needs to be successful.

Written By: Stuart Robbins, May 2012
Stuart is a Principal with the Office of the CIO Professional Services; this article and the upcoming white paper explaining these basic management skills, began as entries in his blog, The System is a Mirror (also the title of his book from John Wiley & Sons).

Strategically Speaking