March 11, 2016
Good IT Managers Vs. Great IT Managers
Vince Lombardi knew a thing or two about football. The iconic coach of the Green Bay Packers during the 1960s led the team to three straight and five total National Football League championships within just seven years, If that weren’t enough, under his direction the Packers won the first two Super Bowls. Lombardi also knew a few things about leading people. “Leaders,” the coach said, “are made, they are not born.”
And so it is with IT managers. While many have, through education and experience, been shaped into good managers, others have become great managers by a multitude of definitions. What are the distinctions between the two, and can the merely capable manager transform himself or herself into an exceptional one? In this article, we will explore those questions.
First, we must understand that great IT managers are, foremost, great managers. The fact that you possess superb technical skills is of less importance than your ability to manage people. If you have the skills to manage people, you can manage anyone and you can manage them anywhere. If you can’t manage people, all the technical knowledge in the world will not qualify you as an IT manager, let alone a great one.
It all comes down to the right combinations of skills in the right balance: technical skills, interpersonal skills, and planning skills, to be specific. The IT tech needs to be strongest in technical skills, followed by the ability to work with people, and possessing a minimal of planning skills. The good IT manager will have excellent management skills, with technical skills secondary, but with some ability to plan projects and workloads. The great IT manager, on the other hand, excels at managing people and knows how to plan complex projects in terms of technology and costs, but might not be the best tech in the shop.
With this basic understanding of how one’s skill set must evolve, if one is to aspire to greatness, let’s see how those differences often affect IT managers’ decisions.
Good IT managers focus on costs, great ones focus on Return On Investment (ROI).
Every spending decision is a function of one’s ability to plan. A lesser IT manager often lacks the ability to analyze the long-term impact of a Savings On Investment (SOI) approach to department budgeting, compared to utilizing a ROI strategy. A quick example will show why the two approaches are often confused.
Let us assume the IT managers of two rival companies each prepare the annual budget for their departments. The good manager will look for every opportunity to cut costs and to improve efficiency. The budget he or she presents to their manager will reflect reductions in the expenditure of company money, rather than the investment of it. As part of his strategy, he might propose capping raises for IT department personnel.
The great IT manager, however, will prepare a budget that benefits the company more in the long-term. Such a budget might not cap raises, but offer higher raises for the IT techs who resolve tickets the quickest with the fewest call-backs. The initial costs may be higher, but the economic value satisfied customers offer the company can be far greater than the money saved in a SOI approach.
The good manager can move closer to the mark of a great one by spending every company dollar in a way that targets a long-term return, rather than a one-tine savings.
Good IT managers seek the best technology; great ones seek the right technology.
According to a 2013 survey from the National Small Business Association, 70% of small business owners consider keeping up with the latest technology as crucial to the continued success of their business. Further, 63% of owners say they feel overwhelmed when deciding which technologies they need to embrace. This places a tremendous burden on IT managers to make proper recommendations to their employers (or consultancy clients). Once again, the approach taken by the great IT manager will have a far-greater benefit than the one taken by the good manager.
The good manager will suggest adoption of new technology based on what the client or boss says they need. The great IT manager will make their recommendation based on her own analysis of the need.
For example, a good IT manager will provide a complete platform upgrade for their client because the client asked for it. The great manager will ask the proper questions to determine whether a full upgrade is necessary, or if only certain modules need updating. In many cases, the client will not know. They only know that they received an email that their platform vendor has released Version 2.0 so they assume they need it. In some situations, upgrading a client’s system to the latest version can have adverse and costly consequences, which the great manager will have uncovered beforehand, not after the disaster.
The ability to identify the client’s needs requires technical knowledge. Making a client comfortable that you know what’s best for them takes advanced interpersonal skills that you must develop to be a great manager.
Good it managers know how to use the company phone list, great ones know how to build relationships.
It is often enough for the good IT manager to know the names of major department heads. After all, that’s more company info than they knew as a tech, and it should be enough to know where to shoot emails. Right? Not exactly.
Knowing not only the key players in your organization, but those who fill supporting roles, can make all the difference in your effectiveness as manager. Sooner or later, you will need help. You may need support for a capital expenditure, or information from a meeting you missed, but at some point, you will need something from someone. Whether or not they help you will be determined by how much you have invested in your relationship with them.
Have you made yourself known to the HR benefits clerk? Have you looked for ways you can help production supervisors train their staff on the new inventory control? Is the CFO comfortable calling you with questions about their desktop applications? A good manager will be known as a name on the company phone list. If you are a great manager, these people will have your personal cell number on QuickDial.
Far too many IT managers fail to nurture relationships outside the technical ecosystem of their organizations. An equal number fail to develop positive working relationships with their own staff. Managers who were promoted from the ranks, especially, often fail to develop the skills to effectively properly manage their employees.
If you are to ever be regarded as a great IT manager, rather than as merely a good one, it is your employees who must first make the distinction. If you somehow convince others in the organization that you are an IT superstar, but your employees can’t get the time of day from you, your days in the limelight are numbered. For countless are the ex-managers who did not realize that no one makes himself or herself great. It is on solid relationships with your staff that you will stand tall. In absence of that foundation, you are but one step away from a fall with no one to catch you on the way down.
Managing your people requires a different skill set than managing IT systems. The sooner you begin to cultivate those skills, the sooner your greatness will be declared by others.
Good IT managers put out fires quickly, great ones make sure blazes don’t break out.
All managers face problems. If there were no problems, there would be little need for managers. The difference between a good IT manager and a great one, as with all managers, is whether they take a proactive or a reactive approach to unplanned events.
While not all problems can be anticipated and, therefore, prevented or minimized, most can. In fact, the vast majority of stressors that you will face as an IT manger will fall under the “I should have seen it coming” category. A tree falling on your server room can catch you off guard, but how likely is it to happen? On the other hand, you should expect hard drive crashes, router failures, and employee absences, and have contingencies in place. By following proper maintenance, and scheduling your employees fairly, you should be able to prevent many problems from occurring in the first place.
One of the keys to being a great IT manager is the ability to plan. You must take stock of your technical systems and your personnel assets and ask yourself the million-dollar question: what could go wrong? If you can think of a problem occurring, assume that, eventually, it will. Even a mental note to yourself on how you can prevent the problem, or respond to it, can save valuable time when problems occur. The good manager might respond effectively to unexpected issues, but the great manager effectively handles them by expecting them.
Good IT managers develop strategies, great ones develop cultures.
Good IT managers think in terms of developing security strategies for building layers of protection between client systems and the outside world. Great managers create and nurture a work environment in which security is considered at every level, from product concept to development to deployment and beyond.
Good IT managers develop strategies for rewarding the best ideas proposed by employees. Great managers create an environment in which every staffer must contribute.
And good IT managers devise strategies for managing their staff with designated supervisors, while great managers support their teams as they manage and regulate themselves in an environment of equality and opportunity for all.
According to business author John Coleman, organizational cultures are developed and nurtured by great managers and do not come about by mere happenstance. They are carefully orchestrated to reflect the vision, values, and practices with which the company identifies. Employees must be selected who will support these concepts, rather than oppose them. And the work place must be physically conducive to the team mentality. At the end of the day, this may mean a pile of cubical walls collecting by the dumpster—whatever removes barriers between employees and facilitates communications and the free flow of ideas. Such efforts produce more than a positive work environment; they produce a work culture, which extends far deeper than the physical office space.
Apple and Microsoft are examples of companies that have thrived by adopting a culture-centric work environment.
No IT manager can claim to be a great manager if he or she does not—to the degree supported by the organization—buy into the culture concept. Entire course have been written on this topic, but the important thing to realize is that great management, today, must represent new ways of thinking and solving problems. But, then, such has always been the mark of great people in any walk of life.
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