Every IT leader wants to head a team renowned for its talent, productivity and imagination, but few actually have what it takes to elevate their staffs to an exceptional plateau.
One key differentiator between middling managers and superstar IT leaders is fear, as many managers, simply by being reluctant or unable to assume risk, miss the opportunity to drive their staffs to stellar performance.
"A big hindrance to IT teams achieving high performance is fear — whether [leaders are] afraid to fail, mess up, be wrong or cause an outage," observes Evan Callender, a director in the managed services practice of West Monroe, a multinational management and technology consulting firm. Rather than shirk away from the challenge, IT leaders hoping to energize their teams should prepare themselves to "fail fast, expect failure and learn from it," he says.
Do you have the right stuff to drive your IT team to new heights? The following seven tips will help you get started.
1. Prioritize learning
Successful teams work smart. As such, fostering a culture of continuous learning is essential, recommends Kush Saxena, Mastercard's CTO. Because technology is constantly evolving, the most important tech skill these days is the ability to learn and regularly skill up.
"As a tech leader, you must encourage this [concept], whether that's dedicating time on a weekly basis for your development teams to brush up on their technical skills or organizing a hackathon for employees to step away from their day-to-day work to find new ways of looking at tough problems," he says.
It's also important to recognize that a significant amount of learning occurs informally between team members. "Create a culture of mentorship and reward high performers who take the time to lift up their colleagues and teams," he says.
Upgrading team performance requires igniting both motivation and ability, reports Tom Packert, a consultant with IT talent recruiter Wyntalent. Documentation tools and training need to be made readily available online. "Every department should have their own team [web] pages and knowledge bases," he suggests.
2. Provide freedom with fences
Team members should be given the ability to perform up to their full potential, a commitment that often requires a fresh approach to leadership.
"As a management team, we have committed to transforming our leadership styles from the traditional top-down, command-and-control [model] to a more inclusive, servant-leadership style," says Andrew Palmer, senior vice president and U.S. region CIO for Liberty Mutual Insurance. The company expects its leaders to embody a growth mindset, flexing their styles across multiple dimensions with the goal of empowering their teams. "We hire smart people, and we trust that they will create the best solutions to deliver customer value," he says.
One way to judge whether a looser management approach is actually leading a team toward elite performance is by studying staffers' reaction to accountability as well as their desire to learn new things. "If members of the team resist accountability and ownership, it's very unlikely that they will be able to reach peak performance," Callender explains. Top performers typically want to show off their skills and eagerly dive into new challenges. "When you see this happening, you'll know you have the capability to take your team to the next level," he notes.
3. Don't neglect your staff's soft skills
Work with staff members to develop the essential job skills that exist outside of IT. "We've found that coaching technical teams in soft skills — communications, presentation and emotional intelligence — creates excellent ROI and improves performance across the board as it builds cohesion within and beyond the IT group," advises Vince Repaci, a senior coach with professional development and career coach firm LOVR Atlantic.
A rapidly growing number of enterprises are now charging their IT leaders with the task of building and maintaining a culture of customer service excellence.
"It's important to assess the hard, technical skills of each member of your team, but even more important to assess their desire to embrace a customer-first service excellence, [and] their willingness to understand the business drivers behind what they are being asked to do," says Rich Temple, vice president and CIO of the Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills, N.J.
Ask yourself: are team members going the extra yard for their customers; do they demonstrate enthusiasm for the tasks they're assigned? "I know that when I see that enthusiasm I get excited by it, because I see it as infectious for the team," he says.
4. Monitor and measure performance
Superstar IT teams, by their very nature, generate stellar performance metrics. Unfortunately, there's no single magic statistic that can be tracked to provide a full and meaningful picture of staff performance.
"We live in a world of tickets, lines of code, story points and project milestones," Callender observes. All of this information should be tied to accurate time reporting to understand where time is going and what tasks are being produced or handled. "Being able to track productivity and enable accountability will very quickly separate those on the team who will perform from those who will not," he explains.
Saxena notes that while benchmarking a team against performance metrics — both quantitative and qualitative — will help pinpoint performance gaps, it's important to remain objective when studying the results. "Don't be fixated on jumping to conclusions about whether your team is performing or not," he cautions. It's not a binary situation. "View improvement as a continuous spectrum: If you take the right steps you'll find lots of opportunities for your team to improve and work in sync."
5. Encourage free and open thought
Jacinta Jimenez, head of coaching at BetterUp, a professional coaching company, advises creating a team culture focused on psychological safety. "We've all been in meetings, [hoping] to voice an important opinion or idea, but ultimately held back because doing so felt too vulnerable," she explains. That feeling is essentially the opposite of psychological safety. "When there's a team culture that fosters interpersonal risk-taking, new ideas have room to take form, people feel seen and heard and potential mistakes or risks are brought to the surface faster."
"At Liberty Mutual, we believe people perform best when they're working in an environment where they feel safe and secure," Palmer says. "We strive to create a relaxed, but professional work environment that has all the buzz and excitement of a startup culture, balanced with the benefits of being a stable Fortune 100 company," he adds. "We value flexible work arrangements and family-friendly benefits as key advantages to winning the best technical talent."
It's also important to view team members as distinct individuals with unique talents and weaknesses. "As a result, you may need to make adjustments to your processes or training to optimize individuals' performances and, ultimately, get the most out of your team," notes Chris Fielding, CIO of Sungard Availability Services, an IT production and recovery services provider. Fielding also stresses that team members should always be given a clear set of objectives to focus on. "You can then review the areas you are lacking to identify the personnel opportunities you need to solve," she says.
6. Be a motivator
Be enthusiastic and commit to serving as an agent of change, both for the team as well as for the entire organization. "Have team meetings where you articulate your vision, and listen to the team as to how they think the vision can be best fulfilled," Temple suggests. Let the team know how valuable they are to the organization and demonstrate that in any way you can. "If you are truly excited by what you're trying to do, it'll rub off on your team, as long as you are sincere," he adds.
Yet Packert warns that longtime staff members, rooted in inefficient processes, may find changes difficult to accept. "Change forced on people without the proper training and support will bring out some bad behaviors," he cautions.
7. Encourage your experts to hone their crafts
Developers, engineers and other IT professionals tend to be lifelong learners at heart. "They want to work with the latest technologies and continuously sharpen their problem-solving skills," Palmer observes. "Whether it's building something new or refactoring a legacy application, we encourage our engineers to leverage modern, cloud-based technologies, which help them grow professionally."
To support this goal, Liberty Mutual runs regular lab sessions that allow developers to experiment with new technologies and annual Engineering Excellence Days that focus on helping team members build new skills.