IT Leadership

The words 'You got this' written in chalk on a road.
How a leader makes you feel is a big part of it

I’ve never written about leadership before, specifically IT Leadership. I’ve always focussed on organisational design structures to eliminate complexity and maximise the flow of value. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently. Through my work as a consultant for DevOpsGroup, I’ve been fortunate enough to help dozens of organisations through powerful change, and I’ve come to realise that it’s not governance, complexity, system design, or even culture that contributes most to success, it’s leadership.

Leadership is a complicated area but I’ve chosen to condense everything down to 4 archetypes. This is a gross over-simplification but a fundamental common grammar can help us. These archetypes are categorised on the ubiquitous twin-axis.

Leadership matrix

Instead of focussing on the style of IT leadership, I’ve chosen to push past the behaviours and use the feelings they instill. The two axes to determine this are Invested and Empowered.

Invested

Begin invested determines how much the leader cares about you personally. Invested leaders are present, passionate, and make you feel supported. These people will make you feel like you matter to them and to the organisation.

There are quite a few studies kicking around that talk about 6 hours per week being the optimal amount of time to spend with direct reports. Given an ideal number of direct reports as 7, this would mean that engaging with your team as an IT leader should consume all of your available time. In this situation, you are, above all else, the leader of this team. That is your role, to help this team succeed.

An issue arrives as something called the ‘span of control’ increases, more on this in another article perhaps. But fundamentally, we are seeing leaders wearing too many hats and with too many direct reports. They are working too much ‘in the business, and not enough ‘on the business‘. This leads to a lack of investment in individuals, decreasing engagement.

Empowered

Empowering leaders will make you feel like you are in control of your own fate, that you are trusted to do a good job and pursue your own path.

This is an area with plenty of material already, but I would point you to Dan Pink’s work on motivational theory in Drive.

IT Leadership Categories

These axes will determine how you feel, which is how the categories are determined.

Ignored

If your leader is both unempowering and isn’t invested in you, then you will likely feel ignored. You feel like you lack both the control and the empathy to be successful or enjoy your role. Some things you may say to yourself if you are feeling ignored are:

  • “I don’t know what I should be doing”
  • “I don’t feel like I see my manager enough”
  • “What am I actually part of?”

Feeling ignored is the most disengaging quadrant to be in.

Isolated

Should you feel empowered, but without investment, you may feel isolated. This is where you have control over your own work but there is little to no interest in you as a person. Things you may be saying are:

  • “I don’t feel part of a team”
  • “Am I doing this right?”
  • “Where do I go from here?”
  • “What opportunities do I have?”
  • “Is this actually important?”
  • “I don’t feel like I get enough recognition”

Governed

This may be the second-most engaging quadrant to be in but is still not ideal. You may feel governed if you have low autonomy but are highly invested in. Your manager cares about you personally, but you have little control. You will spend an appropriate amount of high-quality time with your manager, although maybe wishing that this were less so!

Being governed is typical within a traditionally function-oriented organisation or with a particularly autocratic leader. Some things you may be saying are:

  • “I can’t act independently”
  • “I feel like I’m just working through a TODO list”
  • “I’m not interested in this work”
  • “I’m not developing areas that are important to me”
  • “I don’t think that I can speak up”
  • “I’m not heard”

Engaged

Should you be in the enviable position of feeling engaged, you will feel both empowered and invested in. You feel like your manager cares about you deeply as a person and has enough trust in you to do the best you can. You will feel safe to speak up and take appropriate risks. You will have a clear roadmap for the journey, that you’ve collaborated on with someone who is important to you. Great coaches fall into this category. This is, unsurprisingly, where you feel the most engaged in your work.

I don’t need to talk about why engagement is important here, plenty of better writers have covered this in detail. If you are feeling engaged, you might say:

  • “I’m excited to get to work”
  • “I’m really developing skills that matter to me”
  • “I look forward to working with my boss”
  • “I feel recognised”
  • “I can see how to reach my goals”
  • “I’m supported in my career”

Improving IT Leadership

I suspect a second article is on the horizon in order to cover this in greater detail, but here are some initial goals to work towards in order to improve IT leadership.

  • Work to spend 6 hours a week with each of your direct reports
  • Limit your direct reports to 7
  • Delegate if you are wearing too many hats to achieve the above
  • Establish high-quality, regular 1-2-1s
  • Invest in the ‘Human’ part of HR
  • Work to create Psychological Safety

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