Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ververs - IT's Leadership Opportunity

By Carl Ververs - 4 February 2009

In his latest alphaIT article, Ross Pettit writes about how true leadership is urgently needed in IT, now that business restructuring is becoming a means of survival for many companies.

An August 2008 study by InformationWeek revealed that executives outside of IT value leadership more than any other characteristic in CIOs. Having experience running a business unit outside of IT is considered very valuable as well. These two factors combined leave no room for interpretation: IT needs to stop thinking that just “managing the shop” suffices and realize that providing true leadership is critical if it has any aspirations of retaining relevance.

I posit that in many cases IT has been lacking true leadership for a very long time. For some strange reason, people who do one thing very well rise to the top of management ranks: somebody who was the first technologist in a firm, somebody who ran a certain project well, somebody who has technical knowledge and skills that were pertinent at some point. What is neglected is the individual’s ability to lead, adapt to changing business contexts and inspire others to do the same. It is assumed that success in one context – as a manager or developer in a specific project team – automatically translates into success in another.

It is hard to resist promoting people who are like us and who work like us, but in so doing we create a self-sustaining pattern of like traits to be promoted, warts and all. In evolution, this is a guaranteed path to extinction. Weak leaders promote other weak leaders. We may be surrounded by competent technologist or technology managers but we’ve shut out true leaders who have the courage and determination to not just shake the apple cart, but make something other than apple pie. Arguably, the people we need the most – the innovators – are completely blocked out.

The Financial Times recently ran an article about the animators at Disney. After Walt died, the remaining veterans who had worked directly with him, the so-called “nine old men” were promoted to run the studio. They were not exactly top-shelf animators, and it showed. The outstanding talent Disney had attracted over the years – among others an obscure guy named Tim Burton – walked out within a few years because they were managed badly.

In his blog, John Soat touches on the topic of hiring IT executives and quite a few people comment how it is only fair to promote from within. Luckily, several commentators have a level head and state that firm should hire and promote people who can effectively bring change.

Here is how this cycle can be broken. IT managers very often have a contentious relationship with the business. The business should seek out people who are not in senior management roles but who are very vocal and active in the company’s technology. Invite these individuals to partner with the business on pursuing the action items Pettit lists in aforementioned article and watch what unfolds.

To illustrate how effective this can be, let’s examine the case of a Chicago options trading firm. The business side was very unhappy with the technology leadership but could not find a way to improve on that. They hired a CIO who talked a good game, but did not have the mettle to change anything, either by motivation, coercion or force. Then the traders partnered with a few “vigilante technologists” who had been actively chipping away at the established IT order by introducing new technologies and innovative solutions and funded an innovation group. In short order, this group started to produce real revenue-generating solutions, introduced new ways of working and quickly overshadowed IT management in providing true leadership. Those who tried to interfere with this group’s progress were swiftly isolated and rendered harmless. This set the precedent that business-as-usual was over and IT as a whole was going to be held to a new, higher standard.

Yes, change is scary, especially if that change violates our core beliefs and assumptions. But with the current economic situation, companies don’t have a choice but to take decisive action. As Pettit’s, and related articles state, now is the time for companies to shake their IT department's apple cart a good bit, and shake the rotten apples out while they’re at it.

It’s hot in the kitchen. Time for the faint of heart to stand back.

About Carl Ververs:  Carl has been a business transformer through technology since the start of his career two decades ago. Always at the vanguard of new thinking and creative application of systems, he built CRM systems, used SOA and applied Agile techniques well before they were named.

Carl's technical expertise lies mainly in high-performance computing for derivatives trading and business process management. His background spans a wide spectrum, including business application specialist, hierarchical storage system architect, customer management systems designer, trading operations manager, Agile project Management coach, SOA practice lead, PMO/QA director and deputy CIO. Carl is an avid musician and composer, computer graphics artist and geopolitical pundit. He lives in Chicago with his wife and son.