Practical Leadership Lessons: 10 Tools for Your Toolbox


by James A. Walker, Jr.


Management is widely taught; the formulas are available, the models are regularly applied, and the business intelligence metrics are reviewed. Leadership, however, is learned by doing; it cannot be taught. From Built to Last author Jim Collins to leadership trainer and speaker John Maxwell to NASA CIO Linda Cureton, the people who know leadership know that leadership and management are fundamentally different animals. Technical service and support organizations that fail to appreciate the differences between leadership and management hurt the organization, resulting in a “lack of stakeholder support and relevance, and ultimately, mission failures,” according to Cureton.

In the CBS reality TV series Undercover Boss, Fortune 500 CEOs discover that what they think they know about their companies and what they actually know are very different. For more years than I care to remember, I’ve had bosses. Each boss I’ve had has had at least one leadership trait that I’ve respected and added to my leadership toolbox. In this article, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned, arming you with tools that let you lead, rather than simply manage. No abstract theories here; just concrete examples of things you can do to put leadership back in your organization.

1. Sit Around the Table, Not at Its Head

Even in the cutting-edge world of IT, isn’t it odd how we cling to the hierarchical leadership models of the past? The weekly staff meeting is a perfect example: a long table with the leader at the head, subordinates arranged on either side in descending order of influence. The very people that have the most daily interaction with the leader sit right next to him, as if shielding him from new ideas.

Shift the balance of power: sit somewhere else, with someone else, at every meeting; let your deputy sit at the head and run the meeting; encourage subordinates to lead, and critique their techniques after the meetings. Use these opportunities to energize your staff and build leadership skills in the people who may one day be in your position.

2. Share Knowledge

Everyone recognizes the importance of shared values, goals, and organizational ethics; we print them at the beginning of our tenure and parade them around at each staff meeting. However, we seem to forget them when we get into the daily grind of work, which is just when they should matter most. To reverse this trend, encourage knowledge sharing. For example, start a book club or group reading program. Have everyone read the same book or article, and then guide the subsequent discussion. These two books were recommended to me by a flag officer (a general or admiral) in the US Department of Defense: Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s The Spider and the Starfish and Jim Collins’s Good to Great. You could also ask one staff member to find and share a work-related article each week. Discuss it for five minutes in an open group to tie it into your environment, and refer back to it as you move forward with your mission.

Leadership-focused seminars, such as Chick-fil-a’s Leadercast and Jim Blanchard’s Leadership Forum, are great, reasonably-priced alternatives. These seminars bring world-class speakers to your organization, and take only a day out of regular operations. Follow up after the seminar with a “brown bag” to focus on implementing one Big Idea in your organization. Whichever form of knowledge sharing you choose, creativity will blossom and flourish, and your staff will see the value in being “life-learners” regardless of their positions. Remember, shared experiences lead to shared successes.

3. Employee of the Week

In 1983, when I reported to Fort Polk, LA, for my first assignment as a field artillery lieutenant, one of the first events I attended was an awards ceremony when the battalion returned from Fort Irwin’s National Training Center. Almost half the battalion received Army Achievement and Commendation medals. This surprised me, but my battalion commander later told me that although each medal cost the US Army $1, the return was priceless.

Recognize and reward the small successes. Take the time to select an “Employee of the Week” every week. No big ceremony or elaborate awards are necessary; just bring this person to your staff meeting, seat him/her at the head of the table (see #1), explain the nature of the accomplishment to your staff, and tie that success into the organization’s values, goals, and ethics. Give that staff member a reason to be proud of their work, their team, and the organization, and you’ll have maximized your returns at almost no cost.

4. Nonstandard Hours

When you work in a 24×7 IT environment, it’s tempting to think that all the important things happen when you’re at work. If you dropped by your office on a maintenance night, would you find your top managers guiding and overseeing critical network upgrades, or did they just leave instructions for the night shift? If you stop in on a Saturday afternoon, would your weekend staff be watching football, or are reports being generated, databases updated, and accounts created?

Going in at the oddest hours lets you see firsthand if you’re getting the most out of having staff available during nonstandard hours. Go the extra mile: bring a pizza, sandwiches, or treats to the office after hours; learn a little bit about the people you’ve entrusted with your capital investment. When you get that 3 a.m. call from your boss, you’ll have the comfort of knowing who’s there for you on site and what they can do to restore service or initiate emergency processes.

5. Stand Up Meeting

Meetings are a necessary evil, but you control those meetings. When you count sixty slides, you can count on an unproductive meeting. Take a stand against long, unproductive, and inefficient meetings. Meet every morning for thirty minutes and stand, do not sit. Spend five minutes on data that needs to be shared, a few more minutes on data you may need if your boss corners you in the elevator, ten minutes discussing any goals the team missed the day before, and ten minutes on the goal for that day. This leaves you with a couple of minutes to ensure that all the meetings outside of your control are covered and that everyone knows who’s going to represent their groups at those meetings, giving the rest of the group the freedom to skip the meeting.

Remember: thirty minutes, max. Get in and get out. Every morning meeting doesn’t have to be the same, with the same data, and every meeting doesn’t require feature-length PowerPoint presentations. Start the meeting, build some momentum, and keep going. You’ll gain hours back, and you’ll avoid “death by PowerPoint.”

6. Survey Says...

If you’re in the service delivery business, you’re in the customer/end-user satisfaction business. You probably send out customer satisfaction surveys quarterly, semiannually, or annually, and after each survey someone probably puts a slide up that says, “Our customers/end users just don’t understand our situation.”

Surveys aren’t like wine; they do not get better with age. Discuss the “Needs Improvement” surveys at each morning meeting; they’re all you really need to see. Take them freshly pressed and unfiltered, and give each one serious consideration. You’ll learn more about your customers’ view of your organization from these survey responses than you will from hours of prepared briefings. Call all or at least a large subset of the unhappy customers/end users. This immediate call might prevent escalation as it lets the customer/end user know the survey is used as a management tool; in the cases where you can’t meet the customer’s/end user’s expectations, you’ll at least have an opportunity to explain why.

Take every negative comment as a teaching moment, and remember that your reaction to the raw data will either scare your staff or show them that true greatness is not perfection. You’ll identify trends, discover interesting variations in policy implementations, and you’ll get the word out that the survey is the best way to effect change in your organization. Do this right after the morning meeting and the first hour of your day will be incredibly productive.

7. Your Office Is Overrated

Your office scares people. This is where they come to be reminded that, despite their daily successes, they made errors in judgment. This is where they come with well-staffed plans, only to have them shot down.

When people come to visit, turn your ringer off, get up to welcome them, and sit with them, not across from them. If the meeting is going to last more than a couple of minutes, take a walk. You could probably use the opportunity to stretch your legs, and the walking will keep you both on point. If the meeting needs even more time, take them to a more comfortable location: the lobby, outside to enjoy some sun, the cafeteria, etc. Anywhere that breaks away from the same old office routine will do.

8. Push the Pile Away and Walk

Make a recurring meeting a one-way walking meeting. If #7 got you out of your office, use the return trip to really look at your organization. Is your consolidated printing room clean, with plenty of standby paper and placards with useful information in prominent places? Are there any flashing red lights that need attention? Stop by a cubicle or two and introduce yourself. Ask staff members about their last interactions with customers/end users, How was it? What are people saying about your support organization when they’re gathered around the water cooler? Swing by the server room. Is it clean or cluttered? Has the trash been emptied? Is the ever-present policy board up to date and relevant? Is anything missing? In one such walkabout, I found fifty boxes of toner that were being hoarded. You don’t need to ask how to get that toner back; you need to determine what’s so wrong with your service delivery model that your customers/end users felt like the only solution was to hoard toner.

Right after the morning meeting, grab a completed survey, walk with a staff member to get a status update on the customer/end user’s issue or incident, and then meet with that customer/end user on the walk back. How much could you learn if you did this just three times a week?

9. Build Your Team

Information technologists and support professionals cannot stand on the sidelines. IT and support organizations need teams to deliver their services, so take the time to build good teams. We often send poor signals through “forced fun” events: “The organizational picnic is next week, and everyone is invited, but contractors, please remember that you must take a day of vacation. Better yet, staff, here are your green badges; contractors, your blue badges are on the other table.”

There may be differences between your groups, but team-building events should be about building the team. One team, one fight. At the same time, however, team events don’t always have to include the entire team. Sit with your managers and share an article or conference review. Put $10 a month away for those AAA baseball games in the summer, then bring a few folks who’ve had a rough time at work. Get your staff to participate in a charity walk. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and build your team while you build with your team (and get some good publicity for your organization).

My “leadership muse,” as Cureton would call him, is Jim Day, someone I worked with at the Defense Information Systems Agency. Once or twice a month, Jim put on his white slacks and shirt, load up his ice-cream cart, and push it around the office, just to say “Hi” or “Thanks.” Now that is team building.

10. Smart Meetings with Exceptional Outcomes

I recently asked my staff members to list all of the meetings they attended in a week. When the results were tallied, we discovered that we were spending 50 percent of our time in meetings each week. Collaboration and coordination are necessary in today’s geographically-dispersed environment, but leading meetings more effectively could improve outcomes by at least 25 percent. How? Don’t start a meeting if you can’t articulate a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (SMART) reason for having it.
SMART is usually associated with performance plans, but leaders are increasingly using it as a measure of success. A few years ago, the US Joint Forces Command started teaching the difference between outputs and outcomes: an hour-long meeting is an output; a meetings with SMART objectives is an outcome. Leaders must focus on outcomes, staff on outputs. To improve the quality of your outputs, give your staff time to work. Don’t schedule meetings before 11 a.m.; this will give them the opportunity to spend the morning working toward, building, and constructing success. And insist on no computers, cell phones, etc., at morning meetings; this encourages attendees to be receptive and respectful of the other participants. The result is quick and effective meetings where listening and participation are king.

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Change is constant, so the search for new tools must be constant as well; life-learners should always be on the lookout for new tools. The tools presented here can be re-engineered for your organization, combined for better synergy, and passed along to help others become successful leaders. Hopefully, you’ll use these tools over and over again as you practice the craft of leadership.

 

A veteran of the US Army, James A. Walker, Jr., is currently the deputy CIO for the NASA Shared Services Center. Before joining NASA, James was a systems and security administration instructor for the US Air Force and a member of DISA’s Project of the Year team. He later consolidated the US Missile Defense Agency’s three independent help desks into a virtual service desk based on ITIL.

Tag(s): leadership, professional development

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