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IT Leadership: Winning at What Cost?

A key challenge for business and IT leaders is establishing -- and evolving -- a company culture that balances the need for winning with playing by the rules.

Guest Commentary

March 27, 2018

5 Min Read

“The victor is the king and the loser is the bandit” is a famous Chinese proverb. Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” encompasses the same spirit. In IT, bad behavior survives and thrives because leadership allows it. Some leaders simply look the other way or ignore the behavior because those individuals win or close business deals: In other words, get it done. Winning forgives all manners of sin. How do leaders maintain discipline to their core values while delivering wins?

Winning and sinning: the wrong kind of synergy

Companies establish and center their culture on a code of conduct that highlights their company’s values. Values start skewing when winning comes into play. All for-profit companies strive to make money, grow business, and put competitors out of business. That is the nature of the game.

Thus, winning is also where “shades of grey” can come into play, as sinful deeds can lead to gainful deals. These situations provide leaders with an opportunity to show their true character and deliver their core leadership values. Their team members are watching and observing the rules of engagement. What is allowed? What is a foul? And what falls in between?

The simple question they want answered is: How is one rewarded within an organization by its leadership team? This question and its answer drive the behavior of the people within an organization and set the culture for the organization as a whole. For better or worse, leaders need to understand the dynamics with respect to delivering wins because too much rewarding for sins leads to a lethargy from team members who are playing it straight up. The ideal balance of sin, matched with an equal amount of energy, is true synergy. That’s when the magic happens with winning culture. Unfortunately, the situation does not stay in equilibrium forever. People are just too dynamic in nature.  

People and process: harbingers of friction

Tech is easy, but people are non-linear, differential equations that are hard to solve since they change over time. People influence processes. Think of processes as forces that can be directed positively or negatively by people. People pollute processes with political motives, selfish decisions, and personal biases. These inheritances introduce friction into processes and further affect future people interactions.

Friction forms the resistance often called tech inertia. In turn, the inertia compounds the organization’s tech debt. Friction kills team collaboration and limits the ability of the organization to continuously integrate and deliver application services -- still the center of the disruptive innovation storm. Reducing friction is the key to a leader’s organizational success.

Leaders versus managers

Deals won and lost are success metrics for companies and their leaders, especially IT ops leaders. Businesses are in it to make money, and IT is an investment that can allow organizations to harness the power of disruptive innovation in the form of application services delivered or processes improved. How well they minimize the potential friction that their people and processes introduce while balancing the win-loss ratio determines a leader’s success.

Google, a leading technology company, shared the results of their study of the behaviors that make a good manager. The top five behaviors are:

  • Is a good coach

  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage

  • Creates an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being

  • Is productive and results-oriented

  • Is a good communicator -- listens and shares information

While this is a good list to start with, notice that the list is for management. IT leaders need to be more than just managers. They need to connect the tactile with the strategic. Peter Drucker said it best: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Do the right things  

Trust but verify is the modus operandi that most technologists live by. This edict is also used in their relationships with leadership teams. Therefore, successful leaders must earn the trust of their reports by doing the right things if they are going to establish a winning culture.

From my experience, there are three things that leaders can do in order to establish a winning culture that values doing the right thing.

First, be consistent in how you communicate and collaborate. Next, be consistent in how you reward and critique. Finally, be consistent in how you maintain civil discourse. Respect is the key to civility. Notice that consistency is fundamental to all three aspects since it’s how trust is built and verified.

Leadership sets the edge for an organization’s culture. It is the driving force for either good or bad. Where will you lead your organization? And will it retain and attract people that move the organization’s culture forward while continuing to win business? Leaders need to have answers to these questions.

In closing, I would like to invite fellow IT leaders to attend Interop ITX, especially the Leadership and Professional Development track. Packed with practice leaders and leadership coaches, the discussions and workshops will provide plenty of ideas and practical tips for incorporating winning the right way back into organizations. The two that I’m most excited to attend are Katy Tynan’s IT Leadership Summit Day 1 and Tania Anaissie’s Intro to Design Thinking. Look forward to seeing you and having meaningful conversations at Interop ITX 2018.   

Kong Yang is a Head Geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds, an IT management vendor based in Austin, Texas. With over 20 years of IT experience, he is passionate about the entire IT ecosystem, but with a particular focus on virtualization and cloud management, as well as qualifying and quantifying results to support organizations' bottom lines. He is a VMware vExpert and Cisco Champion. He is a regular contributor to NetworkComputing and a member of the Interop Advisory Board.

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Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary

The InformationWeek community brings together IT practitioners and industry experts with IT advice, education, and opinions. We strive to highlight technology executives and subject matter experts and use their knowledge and experiences to help our audience of IT professionals in a meaningful way. We publish Guest Commentaries from IT practitioners, industry analysts, technology evangelists, and researchers in the field. We are focusing on four main topics: cloud computing; DevOps; data and analytics; and IT leadership and career development. We aim to offer objective, practical advice to our audience on those topics from people who have deep experience in these topics and know the ropes. Guest Commentaries must be vendor neutral. We don't publish articles that promote the writer's company or product.

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