What’s the first question you ask a user when they call with an issue? Would it be: Are you connected?
Often the first step on the checklist is to ensure a connection exists. So why is it with our most important asset in the information technology industry – our people – do we fail to check if we are connected?
We have heard time and again that to stay relevant as IT leaders we need to be so immersed in the business of our organisation that we can anticipate, if not drive, the company’s growth and direction with technology.
But what is often not said is that we cannot do it alone and unless we have a high performing and connected team, we won’t succeed.
As IT professionals, we are aware that the true value of computers is not in the individual CPUs, but in the network. Ten networked computers are 10 times more powerful than ten standalone computers as asserted by Metcalfe’s Law.
So, what about our people?
At the basic organisational level, a team is just a collection of individuals reporting to a leader. But this is no better than a collection of individual computers plugged into power without a network connection. They can all do a task, but the ability to leverage the activity, processing or insight of another is severely limited.
So, a team starts with a collection of individuals and for that team to perform, to exceed expectations and maintain high performance consistently over the long term, all those individuals need to be connected.
I don’t just mean via an organisational structure, I mean really connected – they know, trust and (gasp) even like or at least respect each other. Real connection magnifies the power and impact of the team just like the network magnifies the power of the computers.
So, what does real connection look like? Who needs to be connected? For what purpose? And what type of connection is needed?
I believe any high performing team intentionally creates four specific types of connections:
1. Leader to individual team members
2. Team member to team member (within the team)
3. IT team member to IT team member (across IT teams)
4. IT team to other business functions/groups
To lift performance you must first strengthen the connection between you, the leader, and the individuals in your team. This creates a foundation of trust, safety and security on which everything else can be built. Without this strong one-on-one connection with your team everything else becomes an uphill battle.
We all know that every person has their strengths and areas for development but do we know their family situation? Do we know what other skills or experiences they have that aren’t directly related to their job but may be useful in other ways? Do we know the path they have taken that has shaped them into the person they are today? Do we know what drives/motivates them?
Some may say none of this is relevant, I say if you want to succeed then this is critical. I say this because I have learned some valuable lessons on my journey.
When I was promoted to my first departmental manager role of an applications development group it had all the elements of ‘scary’ attached to it. I was promoted to lead a group of my peers and the team were all ‘hard core’ developers with traditional IT backgrounds (and I wasn’t).
They were also all male (clearly I am not), they loved their former boss who had recruited most of them (and was male with a technical background), and most of the team were also older than I was.
Luckily, I had the presence of mind to realise I was going to need to treat this scenario very differently to my past experience. So, for the first time I did what any good military strategist would. I got to know the enemy.
Unfortunately, that was the mindset I had, with all those factors stacked against me, or so I thought, I believed I was preparing for an uphill battle.
And it very well could have been, but in a twist of fate my strategy to get to know the enemy worked to my advantage. Because I took the time to sit down and get to know each of the team members I was faced with the realisation that people are not just the jobs they do, or the skills they bring but are complex unique individuals with a lifetime of thoughts and experience that shape their contributions to the role, team, and organisation.
It probably sounds strange that I had such a realisation, but at the time my experience was such that being successful meant I was ultimately told to check my personality at the door. I had been taught that being empathetic and showing my emotions was ‘wrong’.
Particularly as a woman I had been schooled that if I showed emotion I would be seen as weak and definitely not leadership material. And I was specifically told repeatedly: Don’t ask others how they feel or ask about their personal lives because you're not their mother!”
So, the lesson I had to learn was how to strike a balance in connecting with each of my team on an individual basis in a way that wasn’t mothering?
I believe this lesson, which is one I continue to work on mastering, has been more informative than any sort of test that can be administered.
Don’t get me wrong, the information from Myers-Briggs, the Clifton StrengthsFinder, the Kolbe A Index, and the DiSC profile all provide great information but they certainly don’t tell you that the reason one of your team members isn’t really engaged is because he is doing work that he’s not passionate about and he is struggling with his autistic son.
So, the first step to success as an IT leader is to make a connection with your people. Try a new leader assimilation (or even an old leader assimilation if you’ve been with your team for a while) where you give the team an opportunity to get to know you, your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, your hopes and aspirations, the real authentic you.
And then give your people the space to be vulnerable with you one-on-one. Listen, practice empathy, listen some more and forge a connection which when checked in on, on a regular basis, will continue working and form the foundation for developing a high performing team and continued success.
Stephanie Barros is a certified high performance coach, facilitator and speaker. She was previously Asia Pacific regional director of information technology at Johnson & Johnson.
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