Introduction – Leadership Lessons for success
“Systems are back up.”
Four words that no IT executive wants to hear.
It’s a bittersweet feeling; without question, the first reaction is instantaneous relief. However, this is short-lived. Experience tells you that significant system issues usually result in subsequent business disruptions.
I write this with first-hand experience, having been in this position numerous times. Each time, challenges have been overcome; however, these events have been the catalyst to outstanding achievements and numerous career highlights.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll share some of the critical leadership lessons I’ve learned as an IT executive. I’ve also included some valued anecdotes from great leaders who have shaped my management thinking and helped build my resilience.
- What’s going to kill us next
- There is no issue in space you can’t make worse
- Champions act like champions before they are champions
- Better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late
- It’s more than just a name
- The best surprise is no surprise
- This is water
- Build a new boat
- The best way to predict the future is to create it
- Where you focus is where you end up
1. What’s going to kill us next?
The first of my leadership lessons is by Chris Hadfield (astronaut and space shuttle commander).
We’d all agree that going to space is, without question, a life-threatening experience full of fear. To help him manage the positions he found himself in, Hadfield stated he used to say:
“What’s the next thing that’s going to kill us?”
This phrase resonated with me because it is natural that things will go wrong no matter what field you’re in. This saying helps leaders to prioritise tasks and stay level-headed during difficult times. I frequently revert to using it to cut through the noise and zoning into what matters.
2. There is no issue in space you can’t make worse
The second mantra on my list also comes from Hadfield’s speech.
Again, this translates well to companies:
“More haste, less speed.”
Since IT departments experience a lot of change, completing impact assessments for every alteration is impossible and unrealistic. Therefore, self-inflicted issues are unavoidable.
Pay attention to this idea. If you cease changes across the IT estate at the opportune moment, it can initiate a stretch of stability at a time when needed most. Remember that our efforts are to support the company in achieving success – which means reliability outweighs the volume of change undertaken.
3. Champions act like champions before they are champions
A great leader once told me,
“Act as though you are a leader for a top FTSE 100 business.”
I found that by picturing how leaders in more prominent companies performed, I could change my mindset and start to position myself at a higher level.
- What skills did they possess?
- How do they spend their week?
- How do they communicate with others?
- How do they lead and influence those around them?
If you want to increase your productivity and self-confidence, start by taking responsibility for your daily activities and have self-awareness of any inefficiencies. Never settling for second best is a mindset that separates managers from accomplished leaders.
4. Better a good decision quickly than the best decision too late
A common problem in information technology environments is procrastination. The work requires a lot of analysis; after all,
“It’s just a lot of ones and zeros!
It’s tricky because life is full of unknowns and too much binary thinking can hinder decisions.
The most crucial aspect of making tough decisions is that you can articulate the thought process that underpins your judgement.
- What consideration led you to this point?
- Were other relevant options available?
- Was any information disregarded, and if so, why?
- What difference will this make to your customers?
Don’t overthink things or try to over-analyse a situation, as this can lead to resolution paralysis. Remember that your mediocrity is someone else’s best – so don’t always try to be perfect.
5. It’s more than just a name
Rebranding can be an excellent way of distancing the past and fast forward long-term goals.
When changing a divisional or department name, for it to be successful, leaders must involve every person in their team. This activity provides an excellent opportunity for you to listen to any concerns, and get a deep insight into what people value most. Without a doubt, it will also help create strong advocacy.
Determine what values and responsibilities you want to be known.
- What key messages do you want to be communicating?
- What name best encapsulates this ambition?
- What talent and skills will you need in the future?
Aim high – you should be looking to influence business outcomes in new ways beyond traditional IT functions. If you’re only offering IT-based services, it’s time to expand and start thinking about how you could advance processes which cross divisional boundaries.
Improving processes will create value. Look to position your team within your organisation accordingly.
6. The best surprise is no surprise
Nobody likes to hear about things post-event.
A key responsibility of an effective leader is to keep their executives and teams informed of unfolding events, especially in a crisis.
Though it may be challenging, being truly accountable for making others aware is the fine line which separates leaders from managers.
Never underestimate the importance of being bold and forthcoming with information during a difficult time. Make sure you have a clear explanation of current positions as well as what steps need to be taken next.
Perhaps most importantly, provide timely updates to all employees, so everyone is on the same page. Time often feels distorted during an incident, leading to confusion and stress. Humans will naturally fill the gaps if there is a void in communication.
7. This is Water
David Wallace’s commencement speech inspired me when he said,
“The most obvious things are right before us, but we don’t realise it.”
He went on to say that this has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.
To be a better leader, it is essential to be aware of the purpose of your company and not get lost in technology. To illustrate this point, I recommend that you constantly challenge everything and look for ways to improve.
I promise you there will be some glaring opportunities in plain sight that nobody has picked up on.
8. Build a new boat
Knowing when it’s time to start anew is a crucial ability a good leader must have.
It can be challenging for a team who has spent years developing a particular system to come to terms with the fact that change is required. Nobody likes change and will invariably be emotionally attached to the product.
When we get too comfortable with one tool and set of skills, it’s easy to only see that solution as the answer to every problem. As Maslow’s The Psychology of Science stated,
“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
In other words, we may be suffering from cognitive bias.
Keep this fact in mind: Sometimes, it will be quicker to build a new boat than try and fix the old one!
BUSINESS LEADERS MINDSET
9. The best way to predict the future is to create it
The best way to innovate and spark change is by thinking outside the box. A fantastic example was in 2013, Coca-Cola created “small-world machines“ that united India and Pakistan.
Their success inspired me to do something similar in 2014 within our multi-geo-located IT teams by installing webcams in our breakout rooms. This connected our teams, allowing workers to see and speak to each other while making coffee—a simple act but one that helped us establish a “one team” psyche.
A lot can change in eight years. The impact of the pandemic has meant we’ve all become accustomed to communicating with our colleagues through screens.
Maybe we were steps ahead all those years ago…
10. Where you focus is where you end up
A ski instructor once told me,
“That focusing on the trees would make me ski into them.”
Needless to say, I respected this advice!
Businesses operate under the same premise–you manage what you measure.
If there’s something you want your employees and company to succeed at, then having concise performance metrics is key. To do this, I suggest building dashboards that break down performance in detail, including future predictions on the organisation’s health. These should be visible and accessible to as many people as possible.
Don’t forget the commitment your organisation has to clients. Listen to what they say, and build this position into your metrics.
Be a source of inspiration.
So there you have it, my top ten leadership lessons. I have many more that didn’t make this post, and I have dedicated a small orange notebook to capture any pearls of wisdom that strike a chord.
The best leaders are not limited to managing businesses and executing decisions but also serving the team beneath them.
One of the challenges of a great leader is to convince their employees to follow them. Leaders need the ability to:
- Be honest;
- Create positive changes;
- Take responsibility;
- Have enthusiasm for work;
- Have self-awareness;
- Have a vision for their organisation;
- Be seen and stand out from the crowd.
To help me, I’ve used leadership anecdotes throughout my career to articulate to my team where I believe our focus needs to be. Not only are they memorable, but they invoke complex management principles in simple terms.
I hope these leadership lessons benefit any new leaders who are just starting. Whilst this has been written with an IT person in mind, they equally apply to leaders with related job titles. Finally, if you have any anecdotes or lessons learned that have helped you along the way, I’d love to hear from you.
What lessons have you learnt which have had a profound impact on your thinking?
- 11 Essential Skills Executive Teams Need From Their CIOs – Forbes
- Five amazing things astronaut Chris Hadfield taught us about space and life – TechRadar
- Opinion: Why binary thinking is ruining your life – Cyber News
- The Paradox of Perfection — 3 Effective Principles to Resist It
- “The Earned Life”, by Marshall Goldsmith – see decision-making framework.
- “Million Dollar Consulting”, by Alan Weiss
- A Brand is more than just a name! – Judy Celmin on Linkedin
- Making an Impact at the Top Table – Gautrey Unleashed
- Why Your Greatest Success Will Only Come After Your Worst Failure – Everyday Power