Team leadership in IT

Its accepted that team management should be situational, based on a) the goals of the team and b) the team itself. The classic situational leadership diagram below goes from a directive model (lower right) anti-clockwise based on the competence of the team to one of delegation (lower left).


I have always found supporting / empowering far more effective in IT than directive. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I believe that most people in IT are highly trained and motivated to do a good job, and the role of the manager is to ensure they know what a good job is (what’s required) and to facilitate the doing of it (to remove blockers and problems).

Secondly I believe that management is best when it is about both delivering what the organisation needs and growing the members of the team. This was probably put best by Ralph Nader when he said “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”.

That’s my personal approach. I keep in touch with thinking on team management though, because it is so important to the business I am in. As part of this I came across some research that I think is worth sharing.

Project Oxygen

In the late nineties Google undertook a project to analyse all of the data they had regarding what made effective managers. The project, Oxygen, was widely written up at the time – mostly along the lines of “is that it?”. And in fact most of the rules they came up with are what you would perhaps expect.

The interesting thing though, is that the rules are in order of importance and the order is absolutely not what you would expect. Here are the rules they came up with:

Eight good behaviours

1. Be a good coach
– Provide specific, constructive feedback, balancing the negative and the positive.
– Have regular one-on-ones, presenting solutions tailored to your employees’ specific strengths.

2. Empower your teams and don’t micromanage
– Balance giving freedom to your employees, while still being available for advice. Make “stretch” assignments to help the team tackle big problems.

3. Express interest in team member’s success and well-being
– Get to know your employees as people, with lives outside of work.
– Make new members of the team feel welcome and help ease their transition.

4. Don’t be a sissy: Be productive and results-oriented
– Focus on what employees want the team to achieve and how they can help achieve it.
– Help the team prioritise work and use seniority to remove roadblocks.

5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
– Communication is two-way: you both listen and share information.
– Hold all-hands meetings and be straightforward about the messages and goals of the team. Help the team connect the dots.
– Encourage open dialogue and listen to the issues and concerns of your employees.

6. Help your employees with career development

7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
– Even in the midst of turmoil, keep the team focused on goals and strategy.
– Involve the team in setting and evolving the team’s vision and making progress towards it.

8. Have key technical skills so you can advise the team
– Roll up your sleeves and conduct your work side by side with the team, when needed.
– Understand the specific challenges of the work.

Three pitfalls of managers

1. Have trouble making a transition to the team
– Sometimes, fantastic individual contributors are promoted to managers without the necessary skills to lead people.
– People hired from outside the organisation don’t always understand the unique aspects of managing at Google.

2. Lack a consistent approach to performance management and career development
– Don’t help employees understand how these work at Google and doesn’t coach them on their options to develop and stretch.
– Not proactive, wait for the employee to come to them.

3. Spend too little time managing and communicating

So technical skills – which you would perhaps expect Google to major on – was the least important (a common mistake though – see my post on Recruiting project managers for my thoughts on this point). Having a clear vision and strategy (which almost always comes in at number one on similar lists) is similarly less important. What was at the top were soft skills – coaching, empowering, taking an interest in people.


What does this tell us?

Well remember these were people at Google – managing highly paid, highly motivated, intelligent self starters. But then so are most people in IT. So the key point for me is that most of your team members need support rather than traditional management. Which fits in with the point I made at the beginning – obviously we need to ensure people know what is needed and are focussed, but then think mentor and facilitator rather than director and dictator.


Project oxygen