Advice to the New: IT Manager

FRAMINGHAM (03/20/2000) - You got the promotion. Now you're the team leader, even if the team is just the other three techies you've been writing code with all along. Has everything changed? Or nothing? What's this going to mean, besides extra meetings and more paperwork? How do you make the best go of your new role as an information technology manager? To find out, Computerworld asked five veteran IT managers, each with more than 20 years' experience managing people (one swears he started at age 12) for some pointers on how to succeed on this new step in your career.

Leo Conner

"Realize things will never be the same"

- Vice president and CIO, California State Automobile Association, San Francisco"You have to recognize that your role has changed," Conner says. To begin with, he explains, "others will do what you used to do."

Not that it all changes at once. At the first level of management, supervisors may spend 15 percent to 20 percent of their time on management roles, Conner notes.

But your focus needs to change from understanding every last detail to understanding the business - and the talents of your staff.

Conner recalls a director of software engineering who rewrote everything his staff put together. "It was a huge bottleneck," he says. "Nothing ever got done."

Seeing his role as a technical contributor blinded the software director to the responsibilities of providing leadership and delegating tasks, Conner explains.

He was supposed to give direction and make sure the group went where he wanted it to go.

"You interpret where the company is going and make that interpretation make sense to the employees you are supervising," Conner says. "They need to understand how your group contributes to accomplishing the company's goals and objectives," he adds.

Recognize when you need help and use the resources around you, he advises.

Human problems like personality conflicts and office politics are even more complex than technical issues.

Get help from your human resources department. "You can leverage them as consultants to your group," he says. "Dealing with people is different from dealing with code. You have to approach it entirely differently."

As a neutral third party, human resources can also help you get credible feedback on how you're doing. You will benefit, and the group will get the message that you want to improve and move forward, he says.

Delegate tasks, but be sure to follow up. "Don't assume that it's going to get done at the quality and quantity that you need," Conner cautions. Employees will learn extremely quickly whether you will or won't follow up.

Mike Cole

"Develop personal relationships"

- Vice president for information technology, Rockwell International Corp.'s corporate information systems, MilwaukeeCole emphasizes the importance of a shift from thinking primarily about the technical aspects of the job to concentrating on the business and interpersonal aspects.

"You need the interpersonal skills and the ability to think through ambiguity and deal with people. Take advantage of any management training your company offers," Cole advises.

"The first level is mastering the basics," he says. Understanding how business operates is key to successful IT management. Take as many formal business classes - especially in financial management, accounting, business strategy and marketing - as you can. And consider getting an MBA. "Make sure that whatever service or product you're providing is reliable," Cole says.

You will earn credibility by getting your projects done on time. "I never make a commitment that I don't think we can meet," he says. "Execution is absolutely critical."

Another suggestion: Read, read, read. "Music, art, architecture can influence you in IT," Cole says. "Open, generalized thinking is valuable. Be a renaissance person."

He also advises managers to cultivate interpersonal skills. "You have to get things done through teams," he says. "The skills of persuasion and negotiation become important." Get training in public speaking; you now need to be convincing about whatever you're promoting or selling.

Network with others within your industry and beyond, he says. "There's a certain inbreeding to thinking in any company," Cole points out. "A lot of the best ideas I come across, I find outside my company."

Chuck Norris

"Always think business first"

- Vice president and CIO, Aqua-Chem Inc., MilwaukeeNorris has been in management since the 1970s, when he started a consulting business for users of manufacturing software. He joined one of his clients, Aqua-Chem Inc., as an executive in 1995, and he and four other executives bought the company in 1997.

Understand your business, he advises. Look at the cycles and say, "Where are we going next?" Then analyze the situation. Your job is to sort through information and make the best decision for your company.

Have a plan, Norris stresses. Set a goal that looks three to five years down the road, but plan to deliver something every couple of months. Be flexible enough to reflect changes in the industry, he advises, and be able to make internal changes to the plan without having to start over.

Sell your position, Norris says. Your employees will want the latest tools.

Look at where you sit today and decide what's good for your company. Be strong, he notes.

Norris had to convince skeptical employees when he remained committed to the mainframe rather than choosing to move to client/server technology. "Everybody told me I was nuts," he says. "But you have to analyze the situation. What is the payoff for my company?"

Aqua-Chem ultimately put up its own network to run the company's 11 operations across North America. "We wanted the network to be strong and compatible across the operation," he says. Sticking with the mainframe also saved the company the time and expense of training employees to use a new system.

"Our reps don't need to know that we've built things like e-commerce and desktop publishing on the outside of our system," he points out. "You don't always have to have the newest technology. It can cost you money in the long run. You have to make the best decision for your company."

Formal education is less important than common sense, Norris says. "Computers are a lot more intelligent than they were when I got into this field," he says.

As long as you understand business, managing IT is a logical, commonsense kind of endeavor.

As a manager, he notes, you've been given a responsibility to run the organization. "Run it like it means something to you," Norris says.

Jerry Miller

"Emphasize people in everything"

- Senior Vice President and CIO, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Hoffman Estates, Ill.

"You have to have a compassion for others in order to lead," Miller says. "If you don't, people will see that very quickly and they won't follow. Understand the power of people. They will always be your greatest asset." There are different ways to manage different people, he explains. Be fair and tolerant of faults.

Learn all you can about the business and what it takes for your business to win, he advises.

Miller stresses that you should quickly find the answers to key questions: Who are your competitors? What are the key success factors?

When dealing with your new customers, Miller says, you should present technical solutions in terms the business partners can understand. Know how to convey what technology can do for your business.

"Never let your ethics slide," he warns. "Always do what's right for your company and your people." And don't be afraid to take risks and fail, Miller says - just don't make the same mistake twice.

"There were times in my career when I had doubts about my effectiveness," Miller concedes. Focus on the three or four most important things in your job and ask yourself, "What are the most important things for me to focus on in my job today?"

Never ask someone to do something you wouldn't do, Miller continues. And take on extra work. Try to stretch yourself, but keep your home life in balance - it's part of your job to set an example to your employees, he points out.

Miller says he firmly believes you should hire people smarter than you are and let them run.

"Someone who has the desire can work to become a great leader by taking advantage of training," he says. "Mold those leadership techniques to your strengths and weaknesses."

You don't have to be outgoing to be effective, Miller says. Having compassion and being honest, fair, direct and intelligent are more important.

"When you're put in a position to lead, take charge and lead," he says firmly.

Fred Matteson

"Learn to leverage your strengths"

- Executive Vice President, technology services, Charles Schwab & Co., San FranciscoMatteson says he didn't want to teach when he got out of college with his bachelor of science degree in music. Instead, a Marine Corps recruiter at a job fair caught his eye with a white Corvette and "the most beautiful girlfriend I'd ever seen," says Matteson.

Reflecting back, "I found out that neither of them was issued by the Marine Corps," Matteson says. But the imagery helped lure him to the Marines.

As a young lieutenant, Matteson learned management on the job. "When you first start out, you're given authority but no implicit respect. You have to learn how to manage through other people, to influence them and gain their trust, to manage through status and information sharing," he says.

Young managers should listen more than they talk, Matteson advises. Find the common direction in differing ideas, articulate it and rally support for it.

Build alliances based on your strengths, he recommends. Establish what you're good at and what others are good at. You don't have to be the best technical person, but you can partner with that person and get support for his ideas, he says.

"I was really good at getting support for somebody else's good idea," Matteson says. "I had the skills to partner with them to get the funding or support for an idea that they may have spent frustrating years trying to sell."

Give up the need to know, he adds. Technical people want to know every detail of everything. You don't need to touch and feel code to get the project done.

Delivering open and honest feedback may be the hardest thing to learn, "but it's actually the kindest thing to do," Matteson says. "When people are failing, everybody knows it, but it becomes the elephant in the room no one's talking about. One of the best things you can do for them as a manager is to help them make some career decisions that they were too scared to make."

Matteson credits his background in music with his facility in pattern matching and improvising, which have contributed to his success in 23 years of management.

"It's very scary at first," he acknowledges. "It's a responsibility, not a right, to be a manager."

Willard is a freelance writer in Los Osos, Calif.

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