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The Three Invincible Approaches to Successful Leadership

By Kim Heldman, CIO, Regional Transportation District

Kim Heldman, CIO, Regional Transportation District

There are several things I consider key when serving as a leader for an Information Technology department. Many of them are common across any discipline including honesty, integrity, and doing what you say you will do. In IT, all of those things are equally important, but I consider three additional traits of critical importance in successfully leading a team of professional level staff—approachability, permission, and partnership.

"Give your staff members permission to make the decisions within their realm of experience and knowledge"

Approachability comes about by building trust with your staff, showing that you are only human, and admitting when you don’t know something or you have made a mistake. This is not something you can establish on the first day of the job; you have to build approachability over time. As you get to know your staff members and encourage their input and feedback, they will find you are trustworthy and are interested in the betterment of the organization, not yourself. Approachability assures staff members that it’s safe to share information with you, even if they have to share bad news. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather hear the bad news from my own staff than finding out in the elevator from my peers who have heard it first. Approachability also generates innovation and idea creation. When your staff and peers know you aren’t going to claim new ideas as your own, they’ll present ideas and suggest process improvements that will help your department run more efficiently.

One of the techniques I use to encourage approachability is humor. It’s a great technique to put people at ease, especially when you poke fun at yourself. There are generous doses of humor at every meeting I attend. People are more relaxed and willing to open up when the environment is not so serious. Don’t misunderstand, we do get serious work done and decisions made, but we have a lot of fun doing it. The last item in relation to approachability is to be present and be available. This isn’t possible if you live in your office. Get out and ask your staff members about their day and how you can help them. It’s shocking what a simple, heartfelt statement like this can do to improve your approachability.

In the IT world, we often work with folks who have advanced degrees and many staff members have such a dedicated interest in their profession that it’s also their hobby. How many server or network staff members do you know with home networks in their basement? It’s likely your team members have more technical experience than you do. That means we need to lean on those experts, trust their judgment, and give them permission to make decisions.

In a leadership role, most of our day is spent with strategic visioning, budgets, personnel, and overseeing enterprise projects. There usually isn’t much technology involved in these activities. And, one person does not possess all the expertise needed to make every decision that’s required across the department. Give your staff members permission to make the decisions within their realm of experience and knowledge. Set boundaries, of course, regarding what those decisions can entail, and also allow room for mistakes. I often tell my staff that if I had their background, experience, and knowledge, one of us redundant. Granting permission says that you trust their judgment and if things go wrong, you have their back. If they consistently make mistakes (or the same mistake multiple times), it’s time to examine their skills and capability, but that’s an article topic for another day.

Granting permission is going to take some mentoring and coaching on your part. You don’t want to set people up to fail so as I mentioned, setting boundaries and maybe dollar limits or risk threshold limits on decisions will help you feel more comfortable in letting go, and also allow your team members to build confidence in their decision making skills within set limits.

In the past few years, IT has evolved into more of a strategic role within the organization and the persona of IT as an administrative function is waning. Yes, there are still plenty of service-oriented functions we provide to the business. But organizational growth, strategy, and meeting the mission and vision of the organization must involve technology and technology vision in order to accomplish those goals successfully. Establishing relationships with the business departments is the best way to bring this about. Partnering with the business (rather than “serving” them which is a typical perception of IT), shows that IT has a voice in the solutions and processes that will bring about efficiencies and innovative solutions. Partnering assists your peers in reaching their goals and helps IT to shape and form a technical strategy and roadmap. Lastly, partnership shows your IT staff they are more than mere order takers and have a role in fulfilling objectives that will translate into corporate success.

IT leadership is not for the faint at heart. It takes courage, strength, and a willingness to be approachable to help lead the organization in reaching its goals. Let your technical experts have permission to make decisions and make mistakes. And step-up your partnership role and let your business savvy and strategic vision shine.