IT Management: Leadership, deconstructed
Being an effective leader is learned skill, but you can apply some simple techniques to build and drive a powerful team.
Leadership is highly valued and rewarded. Learn how to be a great leader, and there’s no end to what you can achieve. If you can in turn help someone become a better leader, not only will you get more out of them, but they’ll also get more from their team. Their peers will learn by example and step up their game.
Often leadership is explained in different ways. Most of the time these descriptions revolve around leadership attributes such as integrity, openness, dedication and setting a good example. These are important—and accurate. However, I’ve always felt they needed to be put into the context of a more-holistic model. By deconstructing leadership down to its elemental components, it’s easier to see how these attributes fit into the bigger picture. Armed with this conceptual model, you can focus on a weak link in your overall skill set, understand its impact and identify a set of tools to address it.
The primary components of leadership are:
- The Leader: Without the leader, there is no leadership.
- Followers: Similarly, without followers, there is no leadership.
- A goal: You could argue that you can have leadership without a goal. Some leaders take their teams on meandering courses through changing priorities and objectives. Strictly speaking, in these situations there is a goal—there are just too many of them.
Starting with these basic building blocks, it’s easy to illustrate what good leadership looks like. People will always follow an effective leader toward a worthy goal (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 Leadership deconstructed.
Not all situations have such good alignment. Some people have great ideas, but just can’t get others to follow them. In other words, there may be a leader, but no followers (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 Great leaders get people to follow them.
A variant of this problem is when a leader can get some people to follow him, but can’t get enough people to move in the right direction to have a big impact (see Figure 3).
Figure 3 Great leaders get lots of people to follow.
This is an often-overlooked part of the equation. It’s not enough to have followers and to guide them toward a goal. Great leaders guide the team toward a worthy goal. Some people appear to be strong leaders because they’re able to motivate and energize groups of people (see Figure 4). Yet consistent lack of good judgment actually makes them a worse leader than someone with good judgment but bad people skills.
Figure 4 Descriptive attributes of the leadership model.
Using this taxonomy for leadership components (followers, leader, goal), we can look at various attributes of leadership in terms of how they affect each of the components.
- Value: The measure of a leader is ultimately the worthiness of the result.
- Alignment: The most efficient path leads directly toward the goal. Is that the direction being set? Are the followers aligned in the same direction as the leader?
- Velocity: A team moving quickly gets to the goal faster than a team moving slowly.
- Quantity: A leader with one follower gets less done than a leader with 10 or 100 followers.
- Quality: The best leaders can get the best people to follow them.
Pursue a valuable goal
Considering those attributes, it’s easy to put some of the most-common leadership advice into context and to see how it affects the overall quality of leadership. Value has to be the most important aspect of leadership. Knowing what to pursue is essential.
So the first challenge of a leader is making sure the goal is worthy. Some leaders have a vision for something they want to create. Others are able to craft goals from the consensus of people around them. In either case, it’s important to have a clear picture of the goal, a belief that the goal is achievable and a belief that, once achieved, the goal will provide significant value.
- Boil the goal down to its essence: We’re often able to understand something before we can explain it effectively. As a leader, it’s important to continue to think through the goal until it you can boil it down to its essence and explain it simply to others. If you can’t boil it down to its essence, it will be difficult to get people to help because you won’t be able to explain the goal clearly enough to get them moving in the right direction. Also, by boiling it down to its essence, you’ll ensure all resources allocated toward the mission will be focused on the core of what you’re trying to achieve.
- Solicit feedback from a diverse set of people: It will be tempting to latch on to the first incarnation of your goal or mission statement and get going. However, time spent at the beginning refining your objective will pay off in the end. This will help you avoid costly direction changes found later down the road. Getting feedback from a diverse set of people is important because even if you don’t agree with what they say, someone else will. Even if you don’t end up changing the goals based on that feedback, you may end up changing your approach to address this part of the constituency. Without that information, you could end up being blindsided down the road, which could put your goals in jeopardy.
- Align with the organization: No mission is more likely to fail than one with a goal that’s out of alignment with those of the organization. On many occasions, a project ends up canceled because it didn’t fit into the overall organization’s big picture. Sometimes this is unavoidable and happens because the organization changed its objectives. Other times, though, the project was destined to fail from the start simply because it began without soliciting a broad base of feedback.
Set direction and create alignment
Many times I’ve landed in a role where the first order of business is to help the organization work through major change such as a re-org or a new strategic direction. It’s exciting to be able to help a team craft a vision, turn the vision into concrete steps and participate in the successes that come as a result of the changes.
Before I push for changes, though, I ask the team members about the roadmap and the team’s goals. It’s amazing how many different answers I often hear. When there’s a lack of a shared understanding of the goals and the roadmap, it indicates that the organization needs some alignment.
People come to work with a certain amount of energy and time they can distribute between their various priorities. Without a shared sense of priorities, time and resources are diffused. This translates to a less-effective organization. One of the biggest challenges that a leader faces is getting people to allocate their time and energy toward the common goal. To create alignment, a leader has to clearly articulate the direction, ensure people are motivated to get there, and create an environment that helps people move in the right direction. This breaks down into the following three key components:
- Create focus and a shared sense of priorities: Every team will describe itself as short-staffed and in need of more resources. Whether or not it’s true, it speaks to the fact that every hour of every person on the team is a precious resource. It also means there isn’t enough time to do every possible thing that could be done. Therefore, it’s of paramount importance to ensure every one of those hours is spent on the right priorities. Creating focus and a shared sense of priority helps everyone understand how to make the decisions for prioritizing the team’s task load.
- Help people see how the goal is in line with their interests: Even if everyone clearly understands your priorities in terms of getting to the destination, you won’t have alignment if the goal doesn’t line up with their priorities. This can be accomplished by helping people understand the bigger picture, by aligning their contribution with a performance review objective, or simply by getting them excited about the challenge of getting to the destination. One way or the other, people have to perceive that getting to the destination is going to benefit them. Otherwise the task of getting them to follow will be a struggle the entire way.
- Create a process that sets people up for success: The path to any goal is going to have ambiguities along the way. The more people you have traveling that path, the more frequently they’ll see those same ambiguities. Part of leading people is making sure that the process and environment in place is one that’s conducive to success. Think through all the ambiguities and front-load the discussions around these challenges so that when they come up in practice, there’s already a solution in place.
Velocity: get the team moving faster
Many think simply getting the team to move faster is the most important way to improve productivity. While it’s indeed important, the biggest productivity gains come from ensuring the goal is solid and the direction is solid. This is often phrased as “working smart versus working hard.” However, once you have the team working smart, it’s time to get the best of both words—working smart and working hard. Great leaders know how to beat the drum and can get the team to move faster than it otherwise would have if left to its own devices. There are many techniques to do this, but they all fit into a few key categories:
- Remove obstacles: Velocity is the time it takes to travel a particular distance. The first way to improve velocity is to ensure there’s an unobstructed path forward. This means a leader has to be able to think ahead and see around corners so he can mitigate any roadblocks.
- Ensure there are frequent, aggressive deadlines: You have to strike a balance here. If you push too hard, you’ll create a reason for people to cut corners or an environment where people will burn out. On the other hand, if you don’t push hard enough, you won’t get to the finish line as quickly as possible. Also, people tend to be less engaged if they aren’t challenged. It’s important to keep an eye on these factors as you adjust the tension between “too aggressive” and “not aggressive enough.”
- Make a dashboard: Have you ever seen those automatic speed detection signs that show you how fast you’re driving? Simply showing drivers that they’re going too fast tends to slow them down. The same is true with measuring performance at work, but in the opposite direction. Having a dashboard showing progress tends to focus people and get them to move faster. Determine the key metrics that correlate with velocity toward your goal and ensure they’re tracked and published. Use these metrics when you define deadlines and people will move faster and be more focused on the goal.
Quantity: get more people
Bringing more people on board doesn’t necessarily mean hiring more people. There are other ways to increase the size of your team. It can mean working with peers or stakeholders outside of your organization to influence them to contribute to your project. Another great tactic is to discuss your project with the executives in your company. Ensure it’s on their radar, that they know why the project is important, and that they know how they can help it be successful. Here are some key techniques for getting more people on board:
- Give it a name: Depending on the nature of the goal, this may be a product name, a code name or just a specific term that refers to your initiative. If it doesn’t have a name, it’s hard for people to talk about it or keep it in mind. For example, if you’re trying to change the culture of the engineering team to start doing a better job on commenting code, you might call it, “operation Doc-It.” Giving the goal a name legitimizes it and helps people justify and anchor a set of activities to a specific purpose or business goal. It might sound like a minor thing, but people are more willing to apply time and energy toward something with a name—more so than one-off items on a to-do list.
- Socialize it with potential stakeholders: A stakeholder is anyone that may be affected by your mission, or anyone with a reason to help your mission succeed. If your mission has a name, you have to get that name out there to get more people on board. If there are stakeholders that don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, they won’t be able to participate. You’d be surprised—especially at larger companies—how many times there’s duplication of effort where resources could be better spent dividing the work and sharing the result. By socializing your project with all stakeholders, you reduce the chance of duplication of effort.
- Marketing materials: The reason products have marketing is because it works. Marketing materials in this context means documents, Web sites and PowerPoint presentations you can share with people who want to know about your mission. Besides legitimizing it in the same way that giving it a name does, it also helps people socialize the mission on your behalf. They may find details you may not think to ask about.
Armed with these techniques, it will be much easier to expand your network of influence and get more people driving toward your goal. Of course, leadership isn’t just getting more people on board. It’s also about the quality of the people.
Quality: get good people
Once the team is moving in the right direction and at a good clip, it’s time to look at the individual team members. It’s amazing how much of a difference one or two superstars can make to the team’s overall productivity. Great leaders are always looking for opportunities to improve the overall skillset of their team. There are three key ways to do this:
- Grow the people on the team: Some portion of your time should be spent helping build the team’s skills. Help individuals grow specific skills, as well as helping the overall team’s organizational skills. While these activities incur a short-term cost in terms of time and energy spent on training, they pay dividends down the road and ultimately result in higher productivity.
- Hire the right people: It’s been said that, “A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s.” This is very true. One superstar is better than three below-average players. If you can only hire one person, hold off until you find someone who will raise your team’s average. The short-term pain you’ll feel having to cover for the missing resource will pay off big time when you find the right team member.
- Help the wrong people move on: If you have a poor performer, they can be a tax and a productivity drain. They can cause resentment in their peers who have to do extra work to cover for them and who must explain things to them that should be obvious. Many leaders are hesitant to encourage these people to move on, either because they are too nice or because they’re worried about falling behind and think that anyone is better than no one. However, moving out low performers and replacing them with great people will produce results that speak for themselves.
Now take a fresh look at your current initiatives and projects you’re leading. Are you confident the objective is on target, going in the right direction and boiled down to its essence? Are you struggling to get enough people to follow or getting people to move fast enough? Hone in on the areas that aren’t progressing as well as you’d like. Give these techniques a try and you’ll likely be pleased with the results.
Ryan Haveson has more than 15 years of experience leading engineering teams and delivering software and services for some of the world’s most recognized brands, including Xbox and Windows. He was a group manager in the Windows Experience team for Windows 8. He and his team designed and delivered end user- and developer-facing features, including the live tile notifications platform and the new Task Manager. He’s currently leading the engineering systems group at Qualcomm Inc. for the Windows/Windows Phone on Snapdragon division in sunny San Diego. Reach him at
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