3 IT leadership mistakes to avoid

Effective leadership means learning from your mistakes. Here are three common ones—and how to avoid making them.
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As a business leader, community leader, father, and friend, I’ve made my share of mistakes. Some have been small and relatively inconsequential; others have had real consequences for me, my company, or my family. The one common element of each mistake is the learning and growth that comes from it.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few common and easily preventable leadership mistakes.

1. Leading by rules versus principles

Since my earliest days, I’ve always attempted to be a principled leader. One of the first exercises I undertake with a new team is to agree to a set of principles that will govern our time together. Those principles cover everything from behavioral norms and individual and team expectations to decision-making rights and other important issues.

Here’s a good example of the power of leading by principles: When I was heading up a post-merger integration of two companies, individuals from both organizations needed to collaborate as a single team to ensure a seamless client conversion. Tensions were running high.

The first exercise we undertook was brainstorming and agreeing on a set of operating principles, such as all ideas would be respected regardless of which side they came from; facts and data—not emotion—would drive decision-making; and creating a positive client experience would be our collective North Star. These principles became our rallying cry and helped lead the team to a very successful client conversion.

[ Also read IT leadership: How to prevent overwork and employee burnout. ]

Contrast that with leaders who set rigid rules for their teams to follow. Leading by a set of hard rules will limit innovation, hinder individual and team development, and create a constant need to add or modify the rules as situations change.

Early in my career, I once created a rigid set of rules for my team without any input from them (my second mistake). After all, I figured I was the boss, and setting rules was part of my responsibilities. Or so I thought.

These rules included what time team members needed to show up for work in the morning, what time they could take a lunch break, and how much time they could spend in meetings versus working independently. It took me some time to recognize that these hard rules made little sense and negatively impacted individual and team effectiveness.

Another reason to avoid hard rules is that they force leaders to constantly serve as adjudicators, which is not an enviable place for leaders.

If you want to achieve compliance, then lead by a prescriptive set of rules. However, if you want true commitment, try leading with principles.

2. Seeking the perfect organizational structure

Like most aspiring leaders, I spent my early years wrestling with what structure and people I needed to achieve my goals. I recall once presenting my organizational plan to my manager. Before I began, he threw me off track by asking, “What is your strategy? What are you trying to accomplish with this structure and these people?” I’m sure I mumbled some responses, but the truth was I did not have a good answer to the question.

At that moment, I came to understand that I had been going about this all wrong. You can’t make structure and people decisions before determining exactly what your strategy is. A cogent strategy must be in place before making structure and people decisions. The strategy drives the structure, and the strategy and structure together drive the knowledge, skills, and competencies needed from your team members. You can’t do this in reverse order.

There is no such thing as a perfect organizational structure – there's only an array of alternatives, each with its own respective strengths and weaknesses.

There is no such thing as a perfect organizational structure—there’s only an array of alternatives, each with its own respective strengths and weaknesses. The only way to make an inherently flawed organizational structure work is to have individuals collaborate under a common strategy, purpose, and shared goals. Great teams also take individuals who are willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole.

[ Ready to level up your communication skills? Get advice from IT leaders. Download our eBook: 10 resources to make you a better communicator. ]

3. Getting too far from the details

Some people feel that a leader can be too close to the details, and they need to remove themselves so they can see the big picture.

I disagree. When Ned Johnson, the long-time chairman and CEO of Fidelity Investments, visited the Covington, Kentucky, operations center that I led, I was a young leader still learning the ropes. My team had planned for the visit and was ready with formal presentations, a sanitized technology demonstration, and a tightly choreographed tour.

However, shortly after his arrival, he informed me that he didn’t want a formal management presentation; he just wanted to walk around and talk to the front-line associates. He wanted to experience how things were going from their vantage point.

At that point, I was terrified.

Not surprisingly, his discussions with the associates revealed many opportunities that needed attention. At the end of the day, he shared his findings and asked my team and me to focus on fixing these items to improve associate and customer satisfaction.

The point of this story is this: No matter how high up you are in an organization, details matter! What happens at the front line is as important as what happens in the boardroom.

If you want to see the company as it is, not as you imagine it, spend some time on the front lines with your teams. Look at how the organization functions through their lens. It will make a huge difference in your perspectives and how you choose to lead your organization.

Being an effective leader is a constant and never-ending journey. The best leaders learn by doing, observing, reading, taking classes, reading books, having mentors, listening to podcasts, and other methods. However, the most effective way to learn is to be a leadership practitioner.

Being a leadership practitioner requires constant action and attention to your own self-development, learning from experiences, and reflecting on both failures and successes as you refine your leadership craft.

Certainly, you will make mistakes along the way. Not to worry. It’s all part of the leadership learning and growing process.

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

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Peter de Silva is the author of the new book, Talking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table. He is also a nationally recognized and highly accomplished financial industry executive.