IT leadership: 3 best practices to strengthen today's teams

Amid continuing talent challenges, IT leaders should carefully avoid micromanagement and silos. Consider these common-sense tips
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The Great Resignation has hit the IT sector particularly hard. That’s a double blow given that this hemorrhaging of talent is occurring at the same time as a rapid acceleration of digital transformation in business and the global shift to a remote-centric workforce.

The bottom line: There is more to manage and there are fewer resources available. That means IT leaders need to enhance efficiency and effectiveness – now.

Here are three practices that IT leaders can implement, starting today, to not only keep the ship afloat but help it go further, faster.

[ Want to strengthen organizational resilience? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: Maintaining momentum on digital transformation. ] 

1. Hire great people and get out of their way

It’s time to move beyond micromanagement and box-ticking. It’s critical for leaders to eschew ego and empower people to succeed. When you micromanage, your people are limited by your knowledge and abilities. When you hire great people and get out of their way, you expand your reach to incorporate the potential of every person on your team.

But how do you hire the right people in a tough market? Here’s a trick: Too many hiring managers are laser-focused on finding the perfect person. Instead, you should be careful not to miss the right person.

And there’s a difference. Finding the right person probably means shifting your evaluation criteria. As an IT leader, I’m flexible about hiring for the perfect technology fit. I don’t need a candidate to know all the technology right out of the gate – good engineers can learn technology.

Technical competency is important, of course, but I’ll hire a talented engineer who’s curious, invested in what we’re doing, has strong communication skills, and is ready to learn, even if they don’t have direct experience with what we do.

Team fit is also critical, which leads to the next tip:

2. Dismantle the siloed work culture by restructuring teams

Traditionally, teams are siloed based on areas of expertise. Back-end developers are holed up with other back-end developers, and so on. The problem? Products and solutions aren’t limited to one element, like back-end development. To address the entire lifecycle of your initiative, those siloed teams need to constantly pause what they’re doing to track down and connect with other siloed teams. Every time that need arises, there’s a lag in momentum as people wait for answers.

This is incredibly inefficient. Talented engineers want to be empowered to get things done without unnecessary barriers to productivity.

The solution: Build teams that can own initiatives from ideation all the way through production within that individual team. That means putting people together who normally wouldn’t be connected on a daily basis. At Styra, I focus on giving those teams all the resources and components they need for success and then letting them do their jobs.

It’s never going to be perfect, and there will still be dependencies that arise requiring outside input. And yet this simple restructuring has a massive impact on speed and efficiency, reducing communication gaps, preventing downstream errors, mitigating the need for rework, and truncating the entire process.

Build teams that can own initiatives from ideation all the way through production within that individual team. That means putting people together who normally wouldn't be connected on a daily basis.

A caveat: It’s not enough to simply stick people together and hope for the best. It’s well worth the effort to truly develop integrated, collaborative teams where everyone is on the same page. Engineering doesn’t happen in isolation.

Think of a basketball team: You might have the five best players in the world on the court, but if they aren’t able to work effectively together, they’re not going to win many games. I would take a team that collaborates well and is proactive over a disjointed team of superstars any day.

3. Stay in the mix

Getting out of the way doesn’t mean you’re disconnected from the work – far from it. It just means you’re not micromanaging it. Monitoring is essential to an effective enterprise. A great leader needs to be able to go in deep to know what’s happening with the nitty-gritty details and be able to pop up to a very high level – and do both with ease.

That doesn’t mean you need to be an unsurpassed technical wizard who understands every bit of minutiae intuitively. Rather, you need to know how to ask the right questions – and be willing to listen to the answers.

Being the top leader in IT isn’t an excuse for detachment. Multiple layers of management can dull the efficiency and effectiveness of an organization, turning it into a game of telephone. As you add layers, ensure that individual contributors don’t get lost in the mix. Everyone needs to feel valued. Everyone needs to feel that their contributions matter.

The war on talent is scary for IT leaders. But it’s also an opportunity to lean into automation to replace the rote, repeatable tasks that siphon time away from talented individuals. When you automate the automatable tasks, hire the right people, build teams effectively, stop micromanaging, and make people feel valued, you’ll find you can do far more with far fewer resources.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Supporting Styra’s innovation and growth, Steve Erickson serves as Vice President of Engineering. Having a track record of growing and developing high-performing teams, Steve obtains deep expertise in policy security, software development, and computer networking.