Developing IT leaders; a challenge in a unique environment

It’s a fact that every single team, in every single department, in every single organisation across the world has some issues to deal with.

There is no such thing as the perfect team – there are always communication issues, misunderstandings, debates over priorities and any other number of niggles that occur when you put a whole bunch of people together in a room for 40 hours a week.

As a long-standing leader in the IT world, I think I can safely say that building high performing teams in the technology department is a challenge - but one that can mainly be addressed by developing great leaders. Let me explain.


What's so special about IT?

IT teams are, by their very nature, silos. The demands and priorities of the Development Team are distinct from those of the Infrastructure Team, which are different again from the Business Systems Team. And the Support Team, in its' customer-facing capacity, can have a different perspective from any of them.  And it’s not only the nature of their work that is different – the skillsets of these teams are not always transferable. People in each department have had different training, different experiences, require different qualifications. And it’s common for each of them to think their own speciality is the epicentre of the IT department!


Building your IT leaders

So, with all of that in mind, you have to wonder – how can we find common ground between IT departments? In my career leading a number of different IT departments, I’ve come to realise that there are some key things which help to promote cross-team working and discourage working in siloes – so here are a few suggestions.

  • Develop your leaders. Leaders in IT are not always natural leaders. They are traditionally techy people who have been promoted because they are experienced in their area and have shown nascent leadership qualities. But promotion doesn’t automatically turn them into great leaders; that’s your job.  They need to learn how to communicate with vision, what the impact of their leadership style is, and many other things, in order to become the leaders you need them to be. So don’t focus on their practical skills – they’ve got that covered. It’s the people skills, communication skills, and leadership style that need to be drawn out.
  • Encourage communication. You need to find ways to make sure that the leaders of these discrete teams connect, regularly. And by regularly I don’t mean just quarterly – I mean weekly. It’s only by getting together regularly that leaders of these teams will learn how to communicate with each other. It will also give them advance notice of what others teams have in their pipeline, decreasing the chances of friction when other teams need to be brought in to projects. And most importantly, it will begin to foster respect, and a solid understanding of the work other teams produce.
  • Get out of the way! Let your IT leaders out of the basement (sorry, that’s just The IT Crowd) and encourage them to raise their profile across the business. As the leader of your IT department, you are likely to be the go-to person for presentations, overviews of your department, etc, but you won’t always be the best person for the job. Maybe this is one for the Development Team, or perhaps it’s all about Business Systems; in which case, give one of your leaders the exposure, the experience and the development.  By helping them make connections across your business, you’re also reaping a load of benefits for their teams, too.
  • Bring it home. In my experience, IT teams aren’t always exposed to what’s happening in the wider organisation, so their focus is, by default, on the task right in front of them. But, once you have effective leaders in place, part of their job is to help their teams understand the overall vision, feel connected and inspired by it, and help execute it. Because IT teams can often feel disconnected to the rest of the business, IT leaders need to be especially generous in bringing back to their team the experiences and connections they make at a leadership level. Otherwise there can develop a gap between the passion the leader feels, and the passion that they inspire in others.


Next steps

My leadership team and I are developing ourselves using the Insights Transformational Leadership model, and we’ve decided that our current focus is on Centred Leadership. It’s another step on our journey to becoming a group of cross-functional leaders, in charge of some high performing teams.  It's an excellent programme to help you get your leaders right where they need to be - effective, inspiring leaders running their own successful teams.

And of course, once you’ve got those great leaders in place, the next step is to make sure that they’re each developing their own discrete teams to be just as great. Look out for my next blog on building Team Effectiveness in IT soon.