People management tips for the IT manager

Your staff is truly the most important asset you have to manage to make your IT organization successful. Here are some tips from an experienced IT manager on how to make the most of your people.

Your staff is truly the most important asset you have to manage to make your IT organization successful. Here are some tips from an experienced IT manager on how to make the most of your people. 


Let's take a look at the personnel in a typical IT organization. There is a technical track, an engineering track, and an administrative track. Your most senior folks have already chosen their track, but your younger staff, maybe in the help desk or your third shift sys admin, has yet to choose a track.

For conversational purposes, my definitions of the various tracks are:

Technical track: Systems Administration, Help Desk, Telecommunications, Database Administrators and Network Administration.

Engineering track: Database Administrators (development), software engineers, QA analysts.

Administrative track: Architects, security, project managers, business analysts and your VP/director/manager ranks.

There's a lot of opportunity for your junior people. But you must define the steps they need to follow to get to where they want to be and when you expect them to get there. Having "internships" in different areas is a great way to get some cross training, even before employees choose a track. In a start-up, I had to learn systems administration as well as the duties in my software development role. That helped me understand a lot more about software engineering, project management, and a few other areas as well.

Have your managers define a training plan for all junior IT staff and hold them accountable for their own succession planning as well as moving the junior staff toward their chosen track. Tying a portion of their bonus to these goals is an important incentive.

These junior people are already a part of the culture. It's much less expensive to grow junior folks than it is to hire new senior folks. When junior folks get promoted into roles, they can usually hit the ground running. Hiring new folks always requires a period of transition.

These training plans and having your managers setting expectations for the junior folks will also weed out the non-motivated, the slacker, and the incompetent. If they don't meet the training goals, they are asked to find other employment. This is a root cause of a lot of issues CIOs have to deal with. Spend the time to address this root cause and you can focus on more profitable opportunities.

Your senior staff is a different story. You know your company culture by this point. You know the type of people you need around you to be successful. Remember the standardization exercise you are/were going through earlier? This will have a huge impact on the makeup of your staff. The goal is to have as few systems as possible so your team can be experts in each of them. In the event of a crisis, your senior team will need to react in seconds and must know the systems they are in charge of inside and out. Going through a user manual while on hold with support for three days is not going to cut it. If you don't have the specialized resources, then hire them or re-train someone.

Identify your leaders. Note that this is different than managers. There were times I had to let managers go because they had a direct report that just had kick-ass leadership skills and the manager was in their way. Be fair to both. Give the young firecracker the opportunity and allow your manager to find something more suitable for his or her talents.

It's very important to establish responsibility and accountability up front. Look for the opportunities that you can vehemently articulate—say what will not be stood for and just as vehemently praise the behaviors that you must reinforce. One of the key behaviors I have had to constantly bring to new companies is promoting systems predictability and discouraging variation. It all means making sure that change management exists and is rock-solid.

That covers short term. Long term, you need to focus on a couple of things. Your IT strategy will dictate where the company focus is going to be. You need to make sure you have the right resources in those positions. Team players who are accountable, responsible, and reliable leaders.

Don't forget about incentives. I like to do one general boondoggle a year for good work. It's important for the entire team to get away from the office together and have some fun. Throughout the year, however, I like to focus on projects. The team that completes a project that the customer is satisfied with gets a special boondoggle. Even better would be $250 gift certificate to a nice restaurant for the team members (and their wives for all the time they had to spend away from family to pull that success off).

Another bonus that I love to give (but that I have only been able to finagle out of CFOs twice) is good old cash. I try to tie it to the project metrics. If the project is going to add % of revenue, I try to tie project bonuses to realization of those percentage metrics so that everyone has skin in the game. This really helps prevent IT from chucking applications back over the wall to the business.

Tying into metrics empowers your people to write their own story. I once had one of my developers, upon realizing that the metric was not going to be hit, find out on his own that the business unit was not using a key feature of the application. On his own, he trained a few of the users and quickly got the metric back on schedule. He was awarded something extra for showing initiative.

Having very smart people around you is very important. They make you look good. That is step one and can usually be addressed with select hirings, promotions, and firings. The real tricky part is building a team.

As with any recipe there are ingredients, but the truly powerful team comes together with how you bring those ingredients together. The ingredients are:

  1. Smart people
  2. A well-articulated vision. This becomes the rally point. Everyone needs to understand the what, the why and the how you're going to get things done.
  3. Appropriate incentive plan
  4. High energy team meetings.

As a final discussion point, a word about firing. Yes, people have families and bills to pay and lives outside of work. But if you know a resource is not working out, make the call right away. It will be better for both of you. Sometimes people do just need to be let go once for them to get that sense of urgency back or that nudge to help them do what they really wanted to do. For you as CIO, you won't have to build your culture around an individual, or make exceptions regarding your expectations of how jobs should be done. The worst thing you can do is wait. I waited letting go one resource because the CFO asked me to give him a chance. I regretted that. He kept doing things the way he had always done things and ignored the principles I was trying to instill in the IT organization. Once I finally did let him go, I had a lot of work ahead of me regarding the rest of the team. They saw the exceptions I was making for this individual and as a result, didn't take my direction very seriously until much later. Save yourself this pain.

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