As I relaunch this blog, I’m caught between trying to work out some big ideas while making points that fit within a blog post.

This post will have a very quick introduction to some important basics that I want to cover; then, I’ll move into a detailed discussion of one particular challenge I’ve helped with – that of improving the performance of IT managers.

The Big Idea: Figuring out if your people can do the job

“We need to communicate better.”

“We need to clarify the process.”

“We haven’t been trained properly.”

I’ve worked with lots of organizations, and have heard statements like these many, many times. 

I’ve seen times when indeed, better communication, better processes and better training have made major differences for the teams that I’ve worked with. This is especially true after a merger or acquisition. Often, independently competent groups of people don’t mesh when brought together. 

HOWEVER.

Before anyone spends a dime on any communication or process training, we need to have a serious discussion about Ability and Motivation. 

Simply put: Can the person do the job? Does the person even want to do the job?

Ability – Can the person do the job?

People need to be able to do their jobs. 

Seems blindingly obvious. But, at the same time, it’s really hard for many folks to talk about. Because very few people want to fire someone. Or revoke a promotion. Or accept they made a mistake hiring someone. In some organizations, especially but not limited to non-profits, people prioritize being nice rather than being effective.

The IT manager problem

Every position requires different aptitudes. I’ve worked with and around IT folks for most of my career. I worked with them when the organization acknowledged this or that IT person needed skills they didn’t have or it didn’t make sense to hire.

I’ve worked around them when I was brought in by another department (generally finance) desperate for progress.  

At this stage of my career – and the point of this relaunched blog – I want to move from “working around” to “working with.”

I believe in my competence and the competence of the folks who work with me. Managers who shouldn’t be managing are a common obstacle to my preferred progress. Why? While individuals may have a managerial title, in actuality, they’re individual contributors with a very, very wide range of responsibilities.

How to identify if someone has the managerial aptitude

Many obstacles get in the way of being a good manager – such as a nasty personality. Thankfully, I’ve not worked with many nasty people. And, I’m not looking to coach folks whose major problem is a nasty attitude. Life is just too short.

So, the aptitude I often focus on is the ability to communicate in an organized way. IT managers can fix a problem. But the skill they often lack is describing what they’ve done to others. They can’t create a repeatable process so that problem doesn’t happen again. They can’t summarize their key priorities and tell management what the crucial issues are. Instead, life is a constant stream of incomplete emails and crisis response.

Why do people without these skills so often wind up in IT management? Again, many reasons but often it’s because organizations won’t increase the pay of solid individual technical contributors. To keep them happy and to give them more money, they put them in management.  

(It’s certainly worth a lot more discussion of why companies don’t understand that an individual technical resource who’s really, really exceptional can be worth more than a manager in many departments). 

Promoting an IT person can be disastrous if the person was good at getting their tasks done but wasn’t good at communicating what they were doing.

Other types of managers don’t always need the same kinds of communication skills. If you manage Accounts Payable, for example, the processes repeat. Even if you’re not a great writer, you can, over time, develop and document processes so that your department knows what to do. Vendors come and vendors go but really the processes are fairly stable.

In IT, however, the challenges change from year to year (and sometimes even week to week). If you can’t take this stream of new information and organize and communicate about it effectively, you can’t succeed.

Helping IT people change their thinking and behaviors

Happily, I’ve worked with people who, once I helped explain that their job was to document, explain, and organize, were able to take this on – the differentiator being, they decided they wanted to actually be a manager

They had to accept that they had to give up some technical expertise. Not all of it – it’s not a bad thing if a manager gets their hands dirty with code once in a while. 

They had the skills for being a manager but what they needed was to focus. When I asked them to begin creating a status report for management, for choosing the top three things the owner/CEO needs to know about the IT department, to document key processes and procedures, they could do it. They had to understand this documentation was now their job. 

I could help make them better — but the skill and the desire to change was there.

Other times I’ve seen folks in managerial positions who can’t write. If you ask them to summarize their current projects, they can’t do it. Create a task list. Can’t do it. Set priorities. Can’t do it.

These folks often work really, really hard. They are on their emails 24-7. But nothing gets done

No matter how I worked with them, pointing out they’d have to organize the work and communicate that work to their team, I’d hear the same response: “But I sent him an email,” or “I responded to his text,” or “Yeah, but we got that problem fixed.” The chaos continued.

Unfortunately, helping people obtain these skills is not something that any reasonable corporate training or consulting project is going to fix. 

Assessing the situation at the start of an engagement

As I’ve worked with dozens of managers, effective and ineffective, I’m pretty quick at picking up where things will go with a given individual. I ask them to create the status reports and task lists that I’ve talked about and see how it goes. 

Tasks like these are pretty good diagnostics of whether the individual has the necessary skills.

Of course, as I alluded to above, having the skills and having the motivation to apply them are not the same thing. But that’s the subject for another post.

Is your organization good about evaluating the necessary skills for your team? When there’s a lack, what do you do?

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