As the title says, you have to get out of the office and put boots on the ground if you want to be an effective leader. While I am a big believer in remote collaboration tools (e.g., audio, video and web conferences and the trusty telephone), you just cannot beat getting out and being face-to-face with your customers, employees, business leaders and other stakeholders to know what is really happening in your company and your markets. I can see 20 PowerPoint presentations on a given operation, and still learn more in a day or two on the ground visiting people up and down the ranks.
It is easy to focus on operational matters by reviewing reports and attending conference call updates. But business is about people and technology leaders, like other business leaders, need to be concerned about the people associated with their piece of the business. Certainly the closer you get to have a “C” in your title, the more you should be concerned with the business aspects of what you are doing. This means focusing on leadership and people.
The dilemma in IT management is people rise through the ranks based on technical abilities and some management skills, but there is typically only an assumption people can lead with each step up the ranks. Unfortunately, this leaves us with people in leadership positions that may be technically, and perhaps business savvy, but they often lack the necessary leadership traits and skills to enable the organization’s success. The reality is certain techniques for successful leadership are not very complex and getting out among the stakeholders is a simple and effective means to this end.
This can be everything from walking around to crossing time zones. If your operation is small enough so travel is unnecessary, it is a simple matter of getting out and around to see how things are working and talk with (not to or at) people first hand. When the firm’s operations are geographically dispersed, the walking around may involve some travel. Obviously, being a leader in a multinational has its challenges given the demands for your time, geographical separation, and reduced travel budgets.
I have made it a point to leverage trips for meant for one purpose into leadership tours allowing me to visit our operations across the globe. At the least, I attempt to go to the regional headquarters and one outlying area with a significant employee population or operations. Last year, this resulted in my first around-the-world trip, which was quite enlightening. When I traveled to China and Thailand as part of my MBA program, I took the long route there to visit some of our operations in Eastern Europe, India and Southeast Asia.
The benefits of these trips are unmistakable. I find there is a two-way effect with these trips. Obviously, I get the benefit of direct feedback regarding how things are working―or not―in a particular operation. My sense is the people I am visiting often appreciate that I made the trip, which has a positive effect in morale. But the most important feedback we both get is answering the question, “Why?”
The “Why?” for me is why are the operations working―or not―according to the planning and guidance issued from corporate and how can we improve it? The “Why?” for those I am visiting is a better understanding of why the guidance was issued and why the firm seeking the expected results. So, what is really being accomplished in these trips are first hand observation and assessment as well as focused communication opportunities. The trick is to not miss the opportunities and even create them.
What is interesting is how you can connect the dots on a situation. Say we are getting reports there are difficulties with transforming one part of the firm due to some set of issues, and the assumed solution is things will just have to take longer. It is amazing to travel to the site yourself to see that things are not always what they seem. It is very difficult to get this level of understanding from a progress report.
One of the key issues for any business is cycle time. Whatever your business cycle is, the business benefits from reducing the time it takes to provide the products or services, which are the firm’s objectives. I mention this because cycle time can be artificially extended due to misunderstandings or individual preferences. These disruptions can be minimized by focused time on the ground and this leads me back to the premise that getting out to visit the firm’s operations is good for business.
So, push away from the keyboard, hang up the phone, and get out to see what’s happening for yourself. I am sure you will not regret it.
John Glowacki, Jr., is CSC’s chief technology officer.