How IT Leaders Choose and Foster the Right Talent

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By Minda Zetlin

Joe McLaughlin is Vice President of Information Technology at AAA Western and Central New York

Developing leaders is an important focus for you. How do you go about doing that?

One way is to make sure people understand that they have the power to make decisions. That’s something you just have to work on. Rather than saying, “This is what I want you to do,” turn it around. “What do you want to do? How do you approach this?” Give them the responsibility and make them accountable—“You said you were going to do this.”
People have to be given permission, in many cases, to speak and speak their minds. You have to tell them, “I don’t have all the answers, and I never will.”

What are some other leadership skills you help your team develop?

Another part of development is collaboration. There are people who like to collaborate, but a lot of people who are in leadership positions or want to be are independent thinkers and doers. It’s amazing what happens when people collaborate, but you can’t make it happen just by putting people together in a room and saying, “Here, solve this problem.”
Rather than be a senior person who sits back and observes and puts a negative cloud on everything going on, I tell people that everybody is the same within this meeting. Some people are good at running a collaborative meeting, so if it’s going fine, I’m just a participant. If the meeting stalls, I show them some of my techniques for building collaboration.
The payoff is when two or three people come into my office together to tell me they’ve found a solution to something we’re working on.

Are things aspiring leaders need to learn not to do?

If you’re responsible for a piece of technology, most people take ownership of that and hold it close. They often don’t want to admit that they don’t know something. So what happens when a problem comes up requiring knowledge you don’t have? Sometimes it’s not easy for someone to say, “I don’t know, I need help to figure it out.”
People need to feel that even if they’re wrong or don’t know something, they can be respected by their peers. It’s not a knock on them if they don’t know the answer right away. So rather than have them struggle with something alone for two weeks while they learn what they need to know, I’ll say, “Let me tell you why this is urgent so you can go get some help.”

What do you look for in a potential leader?

When I get an interview for an IT position, they’ve been vetted through HR, and they’ve been interviewed by our technical people and I know they have the skills and knowledge in whatever area we need. I’m looking for culture fit and character and integrity. I often make that judgment within a minute or two of meeting the person, trusting my gut instinct. I usually don’t ask even one technical question.

Interested in reading more from Minda Zetlin, read her article about how confident CIOs are in their decision making.

Minda Zetlin is co-author of The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive. Learn more at

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.