Inspired by Jerome at The Corporate Cynic I have decided to take a break from detailing work issues and people that make me angry and write about qualities in people I have worked for and with who were capable of inspiring the best from people rather than simply demanding it. OK, to provide contrast I'm going to give negative examples as well but this is still more positive than my usual approach.
I'm going with the generic terms of "leaders" because the roles filled by the people who inspired this post have varied over the years. Some have been team leaders, some have been project managers, some have been departmental managers and some have been CIOs. The Corporate Cynic does a good job of covering qualities that are applicable in any industry but for this post I'm going to focus on qualities that are of particular value in IT leaders. Arguably, these traits have value beyond IT environments but they are more integral to an inspiring IT leader.
A passion for technology Great IT leaders don't have to be hardcore geeks but if they aren't passionate about technology, if they aren't excited about the possibilities of the future then they're hardly going to inspire enthusiasm in their staff. IT staff can tell a mile off when a manager is only interested in climbing the corporate ladder and has no passion for the work.
Knowing they aren't the smartest It's actually often a bad idea to promote the best programmer (for example) to management. Good workplaces find ways to reward good IT workers other than pushing them away from what they are good at and into management. Strong IT leaders understand the concepts behind the technology but are happy to acknowledge when superior expertise exists within the team. Bad managers refuse to admit when someone is smarter than them and refuse to take the advice of people who know better than them simply because they happen to be subordinate.
Knowing how to promote IT within the business The best managers I have worked with have gone beyond protecting IT staff from office politics and have actively promoted the benefits of IT at board level. The confidence this gives IT staff helps them deliver better quality results. Bad managers promote themselves at the expense of the IT department. They take credit for success and blame the team for problems.
Provide a vision Doing this right can be a bit of a balancing act. The dynamic nature of IT make providing a compelling vision even more important for inspiring workers. Steve Jobs might not be God but the level of direction he gives Apple is a major factor in the dedication of the staff and the company's success. But there has to be integrity and depth behind any talk of vision - IT staff can smell bullshit in this area a mile off.
These are some qualities that can help a leader inspire IT workers. Of course all the other good stuff covered by the Corporate Cynic should be there too - being honest, respectful, supportive, dependable.
Why is this even important? The number of bad managers who place no importance on inspiring staff provide fuel for a million blogs. The "do what you're paid to and stop complaining" attitude is so common it seems like it must be taught at day on of business school. But I know from experience that, on average, being "inspired" is far more important to IT workers than it is for many other. Most IT people start working in IT because they love the work. They start "working" on IT long before they're employed to do it.
And sadly, truly inspiring IT leaders are few and far between. Most bad managers I have been subjected to seem to take active joy in treating their staff badly. They think giving staff more than the minimum is inefficient and a waste of time and money. But in purely economic terms, giving IT staff inspiration is one of the most valuable things a manager can. Inspired IT workers will willingly work longer, harder and produce higher quality work.
The thing is, leaders capable of inspiring their staff probably don't need any advice from me. And I worry that bad managers will exploit the above tips by using the other lesson they learn on the first day of business school: once you learn to fake sincerity, everything else is easy.