New managers: Learn to manage and lead your IT team

Effective managers find the balance between managing and leading their IT staff members. Understanding the differences and the connections between the two roles will help you handle both responsibilities.

Effective IT managers in today's workplace must learn to play a variety of important roles within their teams and their organizations. Two of the most fundamental are management and leadership. These terms are often used interchangeably or, in some cases, viewed as two entirely separate concepts. But in fact, management and leadership are actually two distinct but highly interactive functions.

Management can be defined as a systematic and efficient use of resources, whether it is human resources or property. It usually involves carrying out tasks, processes, and responsibilities that have been established by the organization. Leadership moves beyond the focus on processes or tasks to a focus on the emotions, aspirations, and attitudes of people. Management establishes the framework for work, while leadership provides the vision, inspiration, and purpose for work.

To be a successful IT manager, you must learn to be both a good manager and leader, with the focus depending on the needs of your teams and the situations you're addressing. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you become a good manager-leader.

Develop a reputation as a good manager
It is important to develop a reputation for being a good manager. The role of manager is usually provided within the institutional framework of an organization. However, people will be viewed as being good managers if they show the ability to implement organizational goals and objectives through the efficient and effective management of work processes. They demonstrate expertise in the work, an understanding of factors that enhance or inhibit productive work processes, and an ability to work well with others. Building a reputation as a good manager provides the credibility needed to become a good leader.

Credible and effective managers will not necessarily become good leaders, but developing legitimacy as a manager provides an opportunity to become one. Leadership is almost always earned. It requires the creation of trust and respect from team members, which takes time and patience.

Demonstrate sensitivity and vision
Successful managers-leaders are doers who show sensitivity and vision toward people and the work environment. They show the willingness and ability to work alongside their staff during times of crisis, while always maintaining a grasp of the big picture. They can also influence the implementation of organizational goals and objectives through the positive and respectful relationships they build with senior managers, peers, and other work team members.

Managers-leaders will enhance the implementation process by clarifying the values that add purpose to the work. They find ways to help staff members perform beyond their own expectations and position the work team to anticipate and accept changing conditions and circumstances.

Gauge the level of leadership needed
The optimal balance between manager and leader often depends on organizational dynamics. Organizations with stability and strong leadership at the top require less leadership and more management from mid-level managers. In these situations, it is often sufficient to reinforce the vision and values being communicated from above. However, organizations suffering from instability and weak or inconsistent leadership from senior management have a credibility gap that mid-level managers often must fill. These situations may require more leadership from the middle to motivate and encourage staff to find purpose in their work.

One scenario
As a new LAN administrator for a small marketing organization on the West Coast, William has a stellar reputation for being technically proficient in his work and for being easy to get along with. The organization had enjoyed several years of stability and profitability. However, shortly after William assumed his new position, things changed for the organization. A downturn in the economy had reduced business by 30 percent, which was fueling speculation of layoffs and downsizing. To make matters worse, two senior managers were dismissed amid charges of embezzling company resources and lying to investors about profits.

William was initially befuddled by the quick change of events. He could sense that his team needed more than someone to help keep things operating smoothly and effectively. He believed that their confidence in the organization was badly shaken because of the chaos at the top and the fear of layoffs. He wondered how he could expect anyone to perform with distinction under such adverse environmental conditions.

To help sort things out, William approached a friend who was an organizational psychologist. The friend listened carefully to William and then suggested that he had an important responsibility and opportunity to help his staff. He suggested that William could give in to his own angst about the situation or serve as a catalyst to find ways for the team to benefit from the problems. He suggested that William take on more of a leadership role with his team to fill the void left by senior management.

William thought about what his friend said and planned his strategy. He scheduled weekly meetings with team members to talk about the uncertainty of the work environment and to identify things that they, as a group, could exert some control over. They determined that they were able to control their own level of effort and their focus on maintaining an efficient LAN system. They also brainstormed about how IT could improve the efficiency of operations within the organization and how they could effectively communicate these ideas to senior management.

William also used these meetings to update team members on what was occurring within the organization and to encourage them to focus less on their worries and frustrations and more on maintaining and enhancing the LAN system. He sought ways to highlight the accomplishments of his LAN team to his supervisor and other senior managers. He hoped to reduce the likelihood of layoffs from his team if downsizing did occur and to position the team to play an active role in the rejuvenation of the company when the problems subsided.

The moral of this story is that William turned adversity into opportunity by being a manager-leader for his team. He helped them focus on things they could control—their own commitment to their work and to the LAN—and maintain a positive attitude about things that were out of their control. His commitment to the team and vision regarding how it could contribute during a difficult time for the organization also laid the groundwork for future success.

Final thoughts
Effective IT managers will learn to be both good managers and good leaders. The role of manager is usually formalized within the hierarchy of the organization. However, leadership is less institutionalized and is earned over time. Managers-leaders will demonstrate the capacity to be effective administrators of work processes, activities, and people, while also providing motivation, encouragement, and focus to employees when necessary.

If you're interested in learning more about the relationship between management and leadership, check out Not Bosses but Leaders: How to Lead the Way to Success by John Adair with Peter Reed (2003) and The Leader-Manager: Guidelines for Action by William D. Hitt (1988).

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