Lessons from the leaders

According to readers of Management Consultancy’s sister publication Network News, IT and network managers are typically ignored by the board despite the massive influence of their roles on the success of the business.

Increasingly, though, network managers are being asked to adopt a more managerial role, often being given responsibility for a number of junior IT staff. But for network managers, many of whom come from a strictly techie background, the prospect of a managerial position will be a daunting one.

To overcome this, IT group Impact recently invited leadership experts and senior IT staff to swap views on how to make a difference at boardroom level, and lead and create “winning teams”.

Speaking at the conference, David Jones, chief information officer at utility company Scottish Power, said the Internet had brought IT to the attention of the boardroom but had also led to conflict between traditional corporate IT and specific IT services used for business goals.

Jones thought that the best way to eliminate the friction between the two was to create separate entities for both functions. At Scottish Power, corporate IT is now strictly internal, while new projects are delivered by a joint venture with an established consultancy.

To motivate his staff, Jones used a radical management technique. He fired all 260 members of the IT department, including himself, and asked everyone to apply for the job they really wanted.

“A leader who has got the right vision is invincible, I told the unions. We have got to change or die. I only lost one senior IT manager who didn’t believe in the vision. All the others stayed on,” he said.

The unlearning process
Adrian Gilpin, director of the Institute of Human Development, threw down the gauntlet by advising IT managers to “unlearn” everything they had picked up from leadership courses. He said that in the split second when something goes wrong, there are infinite ways to respond.

“In that moment we make a choice. How you feel determines what you do next,” he said, adding that good leaders understand “how to make people feel; how to keep believing against all odds”.

Leadership expert John van Maurik took a different approach. “You have got to ‘do’ to be a leader,” he argued. He set out leadership qualities in a long list of goals and characteristics. “It comes down to choosing focus for the areas where we can grow,” he said.

One conference attendee described Gilpin’s take on leadership as an emotional approach and van Maurik’s as a more logical perspective. “When I joined Impact, I thought along the lines of a logical approach, but now I am leaning more towards the emotional approach,” he explained.

Roger Ellis, managing director of consultancy firm Black Raven, maintained that leadership couldn’t be learned from a book. “You have to be born with leadership, though you can perhaps refine it,” he said.

Van Maurik said that the two approaches were not contradictory. “I believe there are areas of leadership that can be taught,” he said. “I agree with what Gilpin said, but we can drill down to detail what we have to do.”

Best behaviour
But Gilpin disagreed, arguing that it was impossible to learn behaviour.

“Choices at times of pressure are automatic by-products of what goes on at a higher level. You cannot change unless you make these changes part of your values. From there, they will automatically drill down to behaviour,” he commented.

Francois Pienaar, captain of the first multi-racial South African rugby team and guest speaker at the conference, said he inspired his team with his belief in the political changes in South Africa. This gave the team such a spark of enthusiasm that it played its way from underdogs to world champions in 1995.

“There are a lot of cliches on leadership, but there is no real recipe. You have got to get into the team’s psyche,” he said. “We were lucky, we had Nelson Mandela. He came to our dressing room before the match. I felt so proud, I couldn’t sing the anthem.”

When faced with a difficult task, he argued, it was important to pay attention to details and to chop the goal into achievable chunks. “Many corporations just set one big goal: the budget. But a shorter period and clear goals give better focus. I measured peak performances of individual players, and they had to beat these week-in, week-out,” said Pienaar.

Liesbeth Evers is senior reporter on Network News.

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