If you had to identify the single characteristic that’s most essential in an outstanding IT leader, what would it be? If you said it’s the ability to build a cohesive, goal-oriented team of people who can work effectively together, you’re in good company.
One person who would wholeheartedly agree with you is Dr. Gordon Curphy, an industrial and organizational psychologist, leadership consultant, and co-author of the book, “The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams.” I recently had the opportunity to speak with Curphy, who sees a troubling collapse in the confidence that we as a society have in our leaders. And he sees cluelessness in the area of teambuilding as a major culprit.
“Fundamentally, the way things get done in organizations is through teams and groups, whether we’re talking about developing code, conducting quality assurance on code, or selling software—it’s always done at the group or team level,” Curphy said. “What’s interesting to me is that very few people actually know how to build a team.”
I asked Curphy whether leaders in the IT profession are any better equipped than leaders in other professions to build cohesive, goal-oriented teams. He said they aren’t any better equipped, but they do have much bigger challenges:
I’ve worked with software companies like Ariba, Symantec, SAP, and almost all of the teams they have are virtual. They have developers in Bangalore, in Manila, in Bratislava, in St. Petersburg [Russia], here in the United States, and they have to get all of those people working together to accomplish some sort of common goal. It’s very difficult to do. Virtual leadership presents some very unique challenges, and those challenges are exacerbated in the software field because of the distributed workforce.
The answer, Curphy said, is to give people a framework for how you get geographically dispersed people to work effectively together:
That’s exactly why Bob Hogan and I wrote “The Rocket Model.” It’s all about giving people very practical advice to build on the lessons they have learned in the past about leading groups and teams, and codifying it in a way that makes sense. When you look at some of the material out there on teams right now, the first thing they talk about is, you’ve got to be able to build trust. Many times, they talk about building trust by doing what I would euphemistically call some kind of kimono-opening exercise—let’s share some sort of personality thing. That’s completely ridiculous. The way you build teams is by having teams do real work. The way you build trust is by having teams do real work. So if I’ve got a software development team that’s geographically dispersed, the first thing I want to do if I want to build a high-performing team is to get everybody on the same page about what the situation is. Who are our competitors? What other internal teams are relying on us, and what are our assumptions about them? What kinds of support are we going to need? How are we going to use vendors? What kind of budget do we have? What kind of hours are we going to be working? It’s spending some time to get everybody on the same page with these things, because many times, people plow into these teams and assume everybody has the same view of the world, when in fact, they do not.
I mentioned to Curphy that it seemed to me that ego plays a role in whether an IT leader can be an effective team builder. So I asked him in what ways ego helps or hinders an IT leader. His response:
On the helpfulness side, every high-performing team I know needs a sheriff. Leadership is a lonely job, and often a thankless job when it comes to setting expectations and holding people accountable for performance. Because if you do hold people accountable, there’s going to be some sort of social and political cost associated with it. Friends come and go, but enemies last forever. So you’ve got to have a reasonable amount of ego strength in order to play the role of the sheriff. In the namby-pamby HR world, it’s “the team members will all hold themselves accountable.” It rarely happens. If it does, that’s fantastic, but in the 95 percent of cases that it doesn’t, the team leader better be able to step up and do that, because if they don’t, their strongest performers will become their weakest performers over time, because they’re going to say, “What’s the point?” On the other hand, if the ego strength is too high, it’s “My way or the highway.” Too much ego can really get in the way. So you’ve got to have enough to paint a clear direction, clear boundaries, clear expectations of how the team will be held accountable. But you can’t have so much ego that you have to make all the decisions and do all the work.
Curphy also had some very interesting things to say about the effectiveness of women in leadership positions. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.