Let's face it, managing a herd of IT pros isn't always the easiest thing in the world. Between tight work schedules, short deadlines, egos, and life in general, there are a lot of ways that the apple cart can get knocked over. Although I'm far from a perfect manager, here's how I try to handle specific situations as they arise.
1: IT pros don't always punch a clock
The challenge: Typical management challenge, but with some added twists. Many, if not most, IT pros are exempt, meaning that they don't get paid by the hour. They are paid to get a job done, not to do routine line work. In addition, many IT pros tend to have to work at odd hours to accomplish maintenance tasks and upgrades that can't be done during business hours. Further, just like many human beings, life sometimes gets in the way of IT pros, and they need to occasionally juggle a bunch of both professional and personal priorities. This can lead to absenteeism or odd working hours or requests to work from home at times.
My take: So what? To me, as long as the job is getting done, I don't care where the person is working from or when they're doing it as long as their long-term situation doesn't lead to degraded work performance. I routinely allow the people who can to work from home when life throws them a curveball. I also tend to be relatively generous when it comes to vacation approvals and requests to adjust hours when necessary. The reason is simple: When I've had to ask a member of my staff to make an adjustment for the College's benefit, they almost always step up, even if it presents some difficulty for them. The least that I can do is to return the favor. It's a give-and-take that simply needs to be respected.
As much as I hate to say it, there does need to be some oversight to make sure that flexibility isn't abused in a way that reduces overall productivity.
The solution: Be flexible. Trust, but verify.
2: My staff needs to be in the know
The challenge: Ensuring that staff knows everything reasonable in order to help them do their jobs better.
With the exception of the stuff that I really can't talk about, I don't hide things from my staff, whether it's good news or bad news. For example, if we were in a situation in which enrollment numbers were showing weakness, I'd step up and tell my staff. To me, having that kind of information helps them to frame their own decisions, and there might be some great ideas for mitigation from the group.
Obviously, there are limits to how much I can really say sometimes, but I've never understood management that held back critical business metrics from the staff. Although I'm sure that no one wants their people to walk around constantly worried if things are a bit sour, potential solutions can come from many places.
Of course, I don't tell them everything. To do so would both bore them and be a complete waste of their time. So, the challenge is making sure they know what they need to know.
The solution: Find a balance and stick to it, but most of all, make sure your people know what they need to know.
3: Policy isn't always policy
The challenge: Blind adherence to what is considered "policy" is akin to saying "I was just following orders."
I almost hate to use the word "policy" any more when, in fact, I believe that the term "guidelines" is much more meaningful. It's obvious that some policies are and must be set in stone — fraud-related policies, for example. However, what most people consider to be policies, I look at as a standard operating procedure only when it makes business sense. For example, suppose you have an equipment-lending policy whereby staff members can borrow equipment for a work-related purpose. In order to provide the best possible support, you request 48 hours' notice in order to pick up equipment. Nine times out of ten, that "policy" is probably perfectly adequate, but there is always that one request that comes in that makes your policy look really stupid.
In other words, if you allow people to hide behind a crazy policy as a way out of making a decision, you're doing something wrong. I've seen it happen far too often, and the results are almost never positive, although the person that was able to hide behind a policy didn't have to lift a finger.
In some cases, an exception to "policy" needs to be made. IT staff members must feel comfortable making exceptions when it makes sense, and it's up to you to let them know when it makes sense — in general — or at least be available if there really is a question. Obviously, if you're providing exceptions for every instance, something is wrong; perhaps your policy is poor, your culture doesn't lend itself to full adherence, or the IT staff is providing too many exceptions. That said, make sure your staff can and does make exceptions when it makes sense. Also make sure to understand that every exception requires additional time to handle it, but, sometimes, it's simply the right thing to do.
I will admit that I tend to err on the side of customer service — maybe too often. I want to make sure that we do our absolute best to serve, but at the same time, our guidelines are a function of available resources, so sticking a bit closer to guidelines when possible is helpful.
The solution: Make sure your people know where they can and can't make on-the-fly judgment calls. If they blow it, tell them, but don't reprimand unless it becomes an ongoing issue.
This one is, by far, the hardest for me.
These are just three challenges that IT leaders face every day. By making sure that you do a good job with allowing employees some flexibility, making sure that they have the information they need to do their jobs, and empowering them to make reasonable exceptions to policy (guidelines), you're on your way to a smoother running IT organization. At first, some of what I've recommended here might seem to be the beginnings of chaos, but note that I do not recommend taking a carte blanche "do-whatever-the-heck-you-want" approach. Instead, provide clear boundaries up front to keep things in check.
Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive with CampusWorks, Inc. Scott is available for consulting, writing, and speaking engagements and can be reached at email@example.com.