CXO

10 tips to help new IT leaders to hit the ground running

Being a new leader in technology has some specific challenges. These tips can help you get off on the best foot forward to make the transition successful.

IT leadership requires the ability to work with a broad array of people from diverse backgrounds, identify company needs and how best to deliver on them, and ensure that team roles and responsibilities are identified and assigned appropriately. Managing people can be just as tricky as managing technological environments and getting up to speed in a new situation can be overwhelming.

I've had over a dozen bosses in the course of my career and the majority of them arrived after me so I've had some firsthand insights into their successes and shortcomings. Whether you're promoted to a leadership role at an existing company or you're starting a brand new leadership job at a new organization, these 10 tips can help you to make the most out of the experience right out of the starting gate.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

1. Get to know your staff

First and foremost you need to meet and become acquainted with the people who will work for you. Share your background, such as where you previously worked (if elsewhere), the last position you held, the areas of IT you're familiar with, and some projects you've worked on. Discuss your career goals and priorities both from a general standpoint and those which relate to your new role. This will help them understand who you are and the kind of leader they can expect you to be. But be careful not to talk about yourself too much, since you don't want to come across as self-absorbed. Make sure not to make blanket promises either, since you need time to find out what sort of resources are available to you in the form of budgets, training opportunities, etc.

On the flip side, talk with your staff about their backgrounds and roles at the company and find out what makes them tick. What are their interests and goals? What do they like about the department and company, and what do they want to do more of? What are they doing right now? What should they be doing instead? Do they have any concerns or ideas for improvement? Where do their strengths lie?

It might also be helpful to read your new reports' old performance reviews and take a look at some of the work they've done. Get your boss's feedback on your staff as well (if applicable) to obtain a third-party perspective.

Develop one-on-ones to meet with each of your staff members on an individual basis to keep the lines of communication open; for instance, every two to three weeks. These one-on-ones will allow them to share their views on their workload and initiatives as well as departmental/company direction and for you to provide personal guidance.

2. Get to know the environment

If you're in charge of a group that maintains systems, conduct a walkthrough of the data center, identify the systems your team is responsible as well as their respective functions, and become acquainted with the operational processes behind them. Read all available documentation and policies and talk to appropriate staff to learn where all the pieces of the puzzle fit in. Are there dependencies on other groups? If so, who owns what and how do things get done?

If you're in charge of a development team, find out what platforms, applications, and processes are used to write and reform code and the associated details such as release schedules, deadlines and the code review techniques.

In short, find out how things work and what happens when they don't. This is an opportunity to identify any weaknesses or areas of improvement (missing documentation, unfair workloads, shoddy services, etc.) which you can build into your strategy.

SEE: How to manage your IT team through company transitions (Tech Pro Research)

3. Get to know the other managers and department heads

Meet with the other leaders in the organization with whom you will interact in the scope of your job duties. Identify key user areas which are the most dependent on your group and the resources or services you provide. Find out how they use IT, what their expectations, goals and strategies are, and what they value as priorities.

Examples include departments related to yours (system engineering, system operations, development, networking, security, etc.) as well as upper management, HR, finance/Accounting, procurement and legal.

Not to sound too much like a Game of Thrones character, but this step can be important in establishing allies, identifying potential adversaries (an overly needy development manager who thinks their objectives should be the number one priority of your team) and otherwise establishing where the company strengths and weaknesses may lie, to help chart the territory.

4. Get to know your customers

Most IT leaders have a set of customers whom they support; internal users, external users, company employees or the public. Identify who your customers are and what their needs are in terms of priority. This may involve something like system uptime, working applications, rapid performance, predictable, quality code releases, or the effect of whatever products or services you're providing. If possible, identify their current satisfaction levels and areas which need work, both on an immediate basis and as part of a long-term strategy.

5. Get to know the vendors and suppliers

Identify the external contacts you will be working with; the vendors and suppliers who provide you with equipment, services and support. Review the current contracts, when they will expire, and assess the criticality of each relationship.

It's important to not make changes at this step; merely gather the data to identify who you need to build relationships with then get in touch with them, explain your role and gain an understanding of how they can help your organization - or whether a change might be in order down the road once you've gained further insights into the big picture.

SEE: Special report: How to choose and manage great tech partners (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

6. Identify budgets and resources

Talk to the finance/accounting departments and your boss to look at what budgets you have for your role; hardware, software, services, support, staffing, bonuses; everything you'll need to keep your department running. Don't leave out things that involve providing incentives or improving morale, such as a slush fund for team luncheons (some companies mark employee anniversaries or project milestones in this manner) and look for problem areas that might need improvement. Is one area overfunded and seizing dollars from another area which needs bolstering?

Take a look at what resources are available as well, such as company purchasing cards, training opportunities, spare equipment, and the like. Even something as simple as available storage space to keep servers until they are ready for deployment should be noted.

7. If applicable, determine where your predecessor left off

Chances are quite high your new role won't simply involve starting fresh with a new set of projects and goals you've put together. Rather, you will find that it's important to find out where your predecessor put the bookmark in the book of his or her ongoing activities and commitments before departing.

Look to see what projects remain open and what the commitments and delivery dates entail. Examine what was forecasted over the horizon for the next quarter or next year, whether rolling out new systems or services, hiring new staff or obtaining training in a new field.

It's not entirely incumbent upon you to honor commitments made by your predecessor, since of course they were made by a separate individual, but I recommend doing so if the commitments were sound. If he or she promised a company outing but the budget won't permit, it's okay to say no, but if an employee was expecting a bonus for quality work and the funds are available I highly advise you to follow through on that.

8. Determine how to leverage your staff's skills and fill in the weaknesses

Once you've developed relationships with your staff, fellow departments, management, and vendors and figured out the concrete details of your budgets and ongoing priorities or endeavors, you can fully assess your staff to see how and where they fit in.

Identify where their skillsets lie and what areas need improvement, so you can factor this into your strategy.

Does a Linux administrator need more Windows experience to help support the team? Does the on-call rotation need to expand and more people need to be reeled in to support after hours commitments? Is the guy who's an expert on configuration management able to provide further documentation or training so more people can step up and take on his responsibilities, or reduce your risk of a knowledge deficit if he resigns? Does one person in particular have a good relationship with the head of another department? Perhaps they can be the emissary to work with that department head so the two groups collaborate more effectively.

9. Plan your strategy

Here is where the figurative blueprints are actually drawn up, and your group's future strategy is mapped out. Projects, goals, initiatives and procedures go on a figurative or literal board and the work is parceled out depending on skill set and availability. Make sure to factor in company policies as well as compliance and regulatory rules.

You'll likely continue things largely as they are at the onset, though perhaps with a few tweaks. Identify these initial changes and communication the direction to your staff, fellow department heads, customers and vendors/suppliers (depending on the level of change).

Don't introduce too much change right away - at least not the tough kind which involves a learning curve or a shift in duties. Changing policies to stop staff grievances or stressors (drive-by visits without a help desk ticket, interruptions at lunch, late night phone calls to random IT staff, etc.) will be the most welcome first elements of change. Work in the other change aspects down the road depending on their level of complexity; switching vendors, for instance, or moving specific team duties to another group.

10. Solicit feedback and adjust course as needed

Get input from your staff, colleagues and customers to chart your progress and see how well your goals and objectives are being met in conjunction with those of their own. Feedback can be direct or anonymous, such as in the form of online surveys. Make adjustments as needed to update your departmental direction, whether in the form of switching priorities, hiring additional staff or investing in additional technology.

Keep in mind not all feedback should translate into action items. Average out the responses. For instance, if 90% of the customers are happy, look at the 10% who are not and determine if their demands are reasonable (e.g. they want immediate help desk service when there's a queue of nine people in front of them or attempt to bypass the ticketing system). In these cases improved communication and more comprehensive policies may be a good solution to the problem to help reinforce realistic expectations.

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Image: iStock/ferlistockphoto

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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