Lessons for Leading IT Teams and Projects

I confess that I keep a few college textbooks on my bookshelf, not because I reference them but rather as a reminder that at one time in my life I took and made mostly A's in classes like Partial Differential Equations and Analysis of Algorithms. Recently, I opened a textbook and was mortified to find my social security number (SSN) written on the inside cover in my own handwriting. When I was a student, student IDs were SSNs. I have dealt with this issue through the implementation of student information systems — but not on my own bookshelf. I thought, my goodness, I certainly have come a long way from those days. This blog highlights some of my most important "lessons learned" related to leading technical teams and projects. These come from working in information technology (IT) and higher education for more than thirty years, including eleven years as a CIO at a large public university.

1. My Top Priority Is My Team

When we move into leadership positions, we must focus our efforts on bringing out the best in the people around us and aligning our teams with the institutional mission. As leaders, our success is gauged by the strength and effectiveness of our teams and less so by our individual accomplishments. I began to understand this when I was an undergraduate student serving as the choreographer for the Louisiana State University (LSU) marching band color guard. In this context, my success was determined by how well our group performed together and with the entire marching band.

Much has been written about the leadership lessons that can be found in the management of musical ensembles. A recent example is "Leadership and the Art of Orchestra Conducting" by Shellie Karabell.1 Through her interview with Maestro Wolfgang Heinzel, Karabell notes that people fundamentally want to feel valued and accepted. They want to be part of something larger than themselves, i.e., to participate in meaningful work that will make a difference. As leaders, we must assemble the most talented and capable teams possible and establish the conditions for people to work together happily and seamlessly. By having empathy and a sense of humor, and by being fair, we can build lasting relationships and strong teams.

The team does not exist for the team's sake but rather to support the institutional mission. This requires thinking about what is best for the entire university, not just our own units. As with the conductor, we must identify issues and make adjustments along the way. We must articulate a vision and inspire trust so that people will want to be part of our team.

2. Do It Right the First Time

Lessons #2 and #3 are rooted in my first "real" job with AT&T Bell Laboratories circa 1986. If you are reading this article, then you probably have been indoctrinated with a "do it right" mentality going back to childhood. Yes, but then the "real world" hits.

In the heat of a large software project, experienced developers at Bell Labs warned that we should do it right the first time because there would not be time to come back to it. That is, we should come out of the gate with our first and best effort. As a young person, I found this hard to believe — I thought we had infinite time and resources. The experienced developers were right. Things move quickly, and there are always other projects lined up demanding our attention. I am regularly surprised to find that the solutions we put in place end up being used for ten or more years — a lifetime in the world of technology.

Insist on "A+" solutions. It is tempting to take quick and easy routes whether it be with ERP implementations, network designs, or instructional technology. Vendors are prone to taking shortcuts and need to be held to high standards. My experience has been that one unit of effort on the front end to avoid a problem will save ten or more units of effort after the fact to fix the problem. Demonstrate an unwavering commitment to excellence.

You may find yourself in a crisis, such as a hardware failure, where you need to put in a temporary solution to buy time to implement the permanent solution. I have seen resourceful IT employees use this trick time and time again to get the campus up and running while new equipment arrives or more troubleshooting can take place to identify the core issue. This is okay and is an important tool in your toolbox.

3. Encourage Debate and Constructive Criticism

As a new employee at Bell Labs, I was surprised to find that co-workers would have intense debates on the merits of various technical designs. When the clock struck noon, they would stop to play Bridge during the lunch hour. At 1 pm, they would pick right back up with the debate.

From this, I learned that it is healthy to "argue" about various approaches. Debate is not something to be feared but rather an important tool for selecting the best idea from among many ideas. Likewise, it is important to critique and scrutinize projects internally before rolling them out to the campus. This is related to doing it right the first time (Lesson #2) and our credibility (Lesson #6). We hold ourselves to high standards internally so that the "deliverable" is as close to perfect as possible when it goes into production.

Inherent in this lesson is that the best teams consist of people who think for themselves and sometimes shake things up. I occasionally see administrators with a "Survivor" modus operandi where they surround themselves with people who validate their own beliefs and have the chief trait of being personally loyal. They "kick off the island" those who pose a threat as independent thinkers. The best leaders surround themselves with strong, capable people who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.

4. Be Gracious

had the pleasure of hearing Lindy Boggs speak in 1994 at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. Lindy Boggs was the first woman elected to Congress from Louisiana and the mother of NPR reporter Cokie Roberts. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 97. Lindy Boggs said many things the night she visited Oxford, but what stuck with me was her observation that the secret to success in public life is to always give everyone else all the credit. Known for being quietly and relentlessly persistent, she was not concerned about who got the credit as long as the work was completed.

Recall a time when someone else took credit for your work after you put your heart and soul into a project. Maybe your boss communicated up the line generically that it was a group effort without acknowledging individual contributions. How did this make you feel? Returning to the conducting analogy, at the end of the concert the gracious conductor recognizes the stellar performances of individual musicians in the ensemble. When we celebrate people's successes, they feel valued and workplace morale is enhanced. Like Lindy Boggs, we should be gracious in letting others share ownership of our ideas if it helps accomplish the goal.

5. It Is Okay to Not Have Everything Figured Out

One of my most challenging and useful academic experiences was completing a master's degree in Mathematics. I learned to keep an open mind until all of the facts and options were available. I became comfortable with not knowing how a particular scenario would play out and accepting that the path to the best solution might not be straightforward.

Being an IT leader requires these same traits. You don't know what the best solution is when you start out. You gather data, identify options, perform objective analyses, and listen. No one person can grasp all of the details associated with IT in a modern university. Remember Lesson #1 about the importance of the team: You succeed by surrounding yourself with capable, trustworthy people, listening to what they say and supporting them.

6. Credibility Is Essential

I recently had a bad experience with the repair of a heat pump in a newly acquired condo. The heat pump would not cut over to emergency heat. The task was to fix this issue and to install a Nest thermostat. Following a visit by the company recommended by the condo association, nothing worked, and the technician recommended that I spend $600 replacing a part or $3,500 replacing the entire system. I quickly formed the opinion that he was either incompetent or was intentionally misleading me. I threw up my hands and called on my trusted company to provide a second opinion. They solved my problem in an hour and for $160.

Typical IT organizations deal with multi-million dollar budgets and incredibly complicated technical landscapes. A poor decision can result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars and massive disruption to the campus. Like the first technician in my heat pump story, leaders who have lost credibility can pack it up and go home.

Leading an IT organization requires active, accurate, trustworthy communication. It is not just about your personal credibility but also having relationships with directors, managers, and employees in your unit so that all parties are forthcoming when there is a problem. A mutual "I've got your back" culture can help prevent you from getting caught off-guard. IT projects are complicated on multiple fronts. There are constant security challenges, new software has bugs, vendors blame each other, and equipment fails. Problems arise from plain old human error and an unwillingness to change. To succeed, we must have the relationships and trust in place to explain what has happened, implement solutions, and move on.

7. Get It Across the Line

Most projects that I have experienced have one or more phases where willful, strategic leadership is required to get them to successful completion. The team is weary, and users are anxious about change. There may be organizational factors working against a "go live." As IT professionals, we must assess risk, anticipate issues, prepare systems and people, and ultimately go forward boldly. This is where the greatest satisfaction lies — to work side by side with dedicated, capable people to move the university forward through the smart application of technology.

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Hopefully, these lessons will be helpful to you. They are not lessons you can learn in a single sitting. Rather, they come from practice and from life experiences, including those that are painful. Best wishes on your journey as an IT leader!

Note

  1. Shellie Karabell, "Leadership and the Art of Orchestra Conducting," Forbes, January 10, 2015.

Kathy Gates is CIO Emerita, University of Mississippi.

© 2017 Kathy Gates. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.