If you were rewriting your job description, what would top the list of your required duties? Would it be managing a development queue, or monitoring the capital expense budget? Keeping your team’s projects on deadline, or providing support and guidance for your team members? Providing technical guidance to your organization, or hiring and training the best possible technical staff?

Or it could be this one: being an advocate for your team with your clients (external and internal) and senior management. If you’re like most IT managers, that duty not only doesn’t top your list, but it might not have even made your top 10. In this column, I’m going to explain why that’s a mistake and why you need to be an advocate for your team. I’ll also give you some suggestions on how to protect and promote your team’s interests.

An interesting question brings an unusual response
I started thinking about the IT manager as a team advocate after seeing something in the Discussion Center. Last month, someone posted the following question in the Management section: What can management do to help you with your responsibilities and meet your goals?

There were some interesting replies, but I was particularly intrigued by one post, which centered on the obligation of the IT manager to act as advocate for the department, deflecting layoffs and securing funding. The post read:

In any organization, there are inevitably conflicts and disputes in the arena of responsibilities, deliverables, and performance measurement on a departmental level. An effective manager is well versed in the capabilities of his department and its limitations. When an issue of reductions in force raises its hoary head, a manager without solid understanding of his department’s value cannot effectively articulate the case for exempting it from the RIF. Likewise, in good times, when capital expenditure funding does become available, managers must be able to present the needs of the department in a clear and compelling manner. Otherwise, the department will not receive adequate funding.

I’m guessing that this advocacy role is a foreign concept for most IT managers. They view themselves as problem-solvers and technical experts. In fact, most technical managers have neither interest nor aptitude in what they view as “office politics.”

In the early days of the Internet, the reigning cliche came out of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” At the time, the idea was that if you built a great Web site, people would find it, without your help.

Unfortunately, all too many technical managers seem to view team advocacy in a similar way: If you build it, they will love you—or at least take care of you. Trouble is, the world just doesn’t work that way. In fact, it’s surprising that anyone involved in technology would think that it does; can’t each of us think of superior products that never achieved commercial success?

Technical excellence is no guarantee of career success, or even employment. Especially in today’s environment, you have to justify your existence every day. That goes for your team as well. Ironically, I think your team probably understands that better than you. They’re waiting for you to show some leadership by defending their interests and promoting their abilities.

Advice on how to be an effective advocate
So if you’re ready to jump into this new role of advocate for your team, here are some suggestions on how to proceed. Some are just common sense, once you understand that effectiveness in this area depends on your ability to persuade, rather than using your technical competence as a kind of shield.

  • Get your head out of the sand: Find out what’s really going on in the rest of the organization. You can’t be an advocate for your team or department if you don’t know what’s happening.
  • Minimize bridge burning: In most cases, a difficult client is better than an ex-client.
  • Try not to be a jerk: Diplomacy’s not a dirty word, so why not try to get along with your clients and business partners?
  • Solve their problems, not your own: If you want to be a true hero to your external and internal clients, try to always remember that they come to you to solve their problems. Stay focused on providing useful solutions.
  • Buy a beer every now and then: If you want to know what your clients really need and really think about your team, get them out of the office occasionally. Buy them lunch or a drink. Not only are you more likely to hear the truth in a semisocial setting, but you’ll build relationships that could come in handy.
  • Boast about your team, not about yourself: If you can pull the spotlight off yourself when talking about your team’s capabilities, your message will seem more credible.
  • Don’t forget who has the leverage: The clients do. Ultimately, they pay the bills, real and virtual.
  • Don’t knock your team: If your team has a weakness, discuss it with the team members and your boss. Don’t bad-mouth your team to a client or peer. It erodes confidence in your team and makes you look petty.
  • Don’t knock the competition: Especially when you’re competing against an internal group, don’t bad-mouth them. No one wants to hear you say, “Of course, the Pittsburgh group is hopeless.”
  • Go outside your comfort zone: Today, you can’t afford to stick to what you know. You must be willing to try something new and get your team’s buy-in.
  • Consider a demonstration project: This falls under the general heading of making yourself useful.
  • Start with the possibilities and not the cost: Don’t always whine that you don’t have the resources. Start by getting clients excited about what you can do for them. Then you can show them the bill.

Technical managers have lots of jobs: judge, conductor, teacher, coach, taskmaster, and counselor, just to name a few. It’s time you added another—advocate.

From the IT Leadership blog

I started thinking about this topic earlier this week on TechRepublic’s new blog for technical managers and their bosses. It’s called IT Leadership—check it out today. It’s free.