Monday, December 9, 2019

Hiring Technology Leaders

If you have read my other blog posts, you know that I'm a huge proponent of servant leadership. The days of top down authoritative leadership are quickly becoming bygone. We live in the information age, where knowledge of anything is a few clicks away. I remember back in 1987 when I started my IT career there was two ways of learning new technology. You either read a book about 3" thick and memorized as much of it as you could (keeping it on a shelf for reference), or you installed the hardware or software and figured things out through trial and error. This was in the days before everything was GUI driven. You got a blinking prompt, and you had to know what to type. The beauty thing is, nearly every operating system performed similarly, so you simply had to look up the equivalent command from an OS you were familiar with. Logic skills were paramount. Tenacity, patience, and a strong desire to succeed were mandatory traits. There were many times I worked on something for hours...even days...only to have it not work and have to start over again. I did not see these setbacks as failure (because that wasn't an option), I saw them as learning. The more I failed, the more I learned, and the better I got at my job.

As my career developed and I moved from one job to another, my technical skill set grew exponentially. In 2004 I found myself working for a large multinational corporation where I rose to IT Manager for the continental United States. The title was really a misnomer. I was leading 15 direct reports and managing a multi-million budget. This was no entry level manager job. It was really more of a director or assistant VP role. Finding myself in this new position where I had to manage people and money versus just managing machines, was more than a little intimidating. I made some mistakes. Luckily I had a boss who believed in servant leadership. He had a conversation with me that changed my career. He asked me if I wanted to be a network engineer or a manager. Of course I replied "manager". That's when he told me that I needed to start putting the needs of my team first. He taught me that mentoring people, helping them succeed, putting a plan together for their professional growth, and making sure they were listed to (and heard!) was more important that configuring servers and routers. Over the years since, I have focused on learning business and leadership. My technical skills are there. My logic skills are there. But laying on top of all of those skills is my heart, my passion, and my love for seeing people succeed and delivering excellence.

One of the things I enjoy doing is looking at job postings for senior IT leadership positions. As I read them, I see line after line of technical requirements. But very little mention of leadership skill. There may be a bullet point that reads, "Manage team", or "Manage staff". I always shake my head in disbelief. Leadership isn't about technology. One of the best bosses I ever had was not technical at all, but was an awesome servant leader who was humble and helped me and my team succeed. I'd have walked over hot coals and broken glass for her and still would till this day. I do think having a strong technical background is important in many IT leadership roles because you need to have an idea of what you're tasking your team to do. You need to have been in the trenches at some point and know what it's like to sleep on a data center floor or a lobby couch. You need to know what it's like to work nights, holidays, weekends, and how much it impacts someone's family when you take them away on special occasions. You need to be logical and have strong problem solving skills. But the need for strong technical knowledge on particular hardware and software is no longer a big need for senior IT leaders. With a simple search, you can find the answer to just about any questions. You may be able to find a instruction video which walks you through whatever you need to know. The information is available at your fingertips. What most organizations need in a leader isn't a walking wiki of technical knowledge, but someone with a heart. Someone who can focus a team on "why we do the work". Someone who has emotional intelligence and knows how to provide the right coaching at the right time. They need someone who is a relationship builder and a great listener. Someone who cares about the customer and what the mission of the company is.

Now don't get me wrong, you still need to focus on the profit motive. You still need to make the most efficient use of resources. You have to have metrics and key performance indicators. But you need to be able to translate those things into a "what's in it for me" (WIIFM) for your team. Get them engaged. Show them the hard work they put in is actually moving the needle. Give them a sense of pride in the work they do versus them feeling like they are trading their life for money.

I once applied for a leadership role where I met or exceeded every job requirement. A few days later, I received an email asking me to fill out a questionnaire to help them understand more about me as a leader. My excitement level hit the roof! I've spent time at many organizations in leadership roles, but this was the first time any employer had ever asked me to detail my leadership style and philosophy.

If you're hiring for a leadership position, or if you're a technical recruiter who is searching for leadership candidates to pitch to your clients, be sure to focus on the traits that make great leaders. You can teach technology, but you can't teach personality. As young people enter the workforce, who have never known life without constant access to information, they are less impressed with what you know and more impressed with how you make them feel. Building a strong technical team starts with a leader who wants to engage, empower, and mentor their team members and humble themselves to be a servant to their team.

The greatest accomplishment of a leader is not telling people what to do, it's getting them to do things without having to ask them. Having them perform at a high level because they are proud of their work and their contribution to the good of the organization. The greatest leaders sacrifice their pride and privilege for the good of their team. They lead with humility and empathy. They serve the organization, and approach each day as an opportunity to help their team, and the organization become more successful.

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