Stop being afraid to do the right thing, rethink the obvious thing:

 

I recently had to tell an employee that she was not getting a promotion that she wanted, and frankly, deserved. She is an amazing employee and the position above her became vacant, of which she is largely qualified for.

The conversation started by explaining why the position above hers was not about to be filled by her, and why the seemingly obvious move of her advancement was not optimal for her or the company. Instead, a clear path of advancement in a different direction fit better for both her and our office.

Despite knowing that this would be a great thing for her in the long run, telling her that she was not getting something that seemed obvious was stressful for both of us. I’ve had to hire, fire, console and reprimand, but it was nerve racking to hold back something that seemed a good fit from a deserving and capable employee.

However, having a clear path towards a better fit was not something that just happened, it takes research and work from management. This work should never be shirked regardless of how positive or easy we think the information will be. Here is a quick checklist that helps me come into these meetings with a clear head:

Do I have a good grasp of what the employee really wants for their future?

If not, I have been falling down on the job at some level in my effectiveness, and for not only their needs but also ours as a team.

 

Have I investigated other options like lateral moves or training for a better fit?

In this case, I had and it was a good ending. Not having this tool and entering the room is like trying to fix my bike without wrenches.

 

Even for great employees, examine together what can be better.

For anyone that has ever gone through a review with me, one consistency they find is that I will always bring up a negative in the review. I’m not trying to be negative, just point one out. Often it’s as subtle as interactions with another co-worker or a lack of using project management software to keep people informed. Sometimes it’s more. The point is that highlighting some of the negatives keeps both parties grounded in the moment, and I have always found that acknowledging imperfections strengthens the arguments about all of the good aspects of their contributions.

There are other things I like to do for reviews, but one is listen. Send me a comment about what you find helpful when reviewing employees. Or better yet, send me things that you hated your employer doing in a review.

Motivating Technically Inclined People

Motivation can be hard at all levels of management, whether it be for technical people or not. I also acknowledge that the methods I have found to help motivate my technical employees over the years generally work in non-technical environments as well. However, they truly seem to resonate with and help maintain the productive technical staff members I have been fortunate enough to work with.

Training:

Most people want to improve and nowhere is this more evident than with good I.T. people. With technologies numbing pace of change, all of my better I.T. people listed expanded skill sets as almost mandatory in their requirements, and it’s a great motivator to provide them with this training. Training expands skillsets of course, which is important to both the individual and the company. However, the true value in training is found in both the acknowledgement that the employee is worth the investment and the technology transfer of their new skills to other employees. That transfer of ideas increases the bond between employees and forms better teams when stress requires them to come together on tough projects.

Training can be expensive, but it need not be to be successful. Three months ago I was asked to host technical training for the local area, and in doing so received free training for my staff. This also included free testing for certification. The only costs for our team was the time of the training and testing, meanwhile the company that requested the hosting of me paid us to host it. Other vendors I deal with gladly include training or deeply discount it when asked to better use or sell their products.

Titles and Raises:

A very good friend of mine in the technology sector told me once that he is a “coin operated individual”, and was jumping ship to a new company because of a pay raise. Sitting down with him and talking it over revealed that he was really moving on because of a lack of respect or acknowledgment of his abilities, which I knew to be considerable, by his current company. The lack of money only added to the resentment factor that existed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying money is not an important factor in job motivation, but if you base your employees motivation on just that factor your team will consist of overpaid, under motivated employees.

One way to improve their value is to include changes in title and clear paths toward these title changes. Titles are important on both resumes and self esteem, but again reward employees by acknowledging their accomplishments and advancements. A blend of these two methods tends to be best. Use the titles to justify future raises, never try to use raises to justify titles.

These are just a couple of ideas, more to follow on a later blog. Or better yet, technical or not write me a note and tell me what you find as a great motivator of good talent.

My Dad, Poker, and Management Lessons:

Full admission, I come from an eclectic family history. My biological father was not around to see me grow up, and only came into my life when I was a young adult. A mother, a string of stepfathers and a grandfather that would have given me the world raised me. Almost all of my family was in the casino gaming industry in Nevada while I was being raised, which is only relevant because my biological father, who is brilliant in all things game and odds based, became a poker champion.

We are all shaped to some degree by our upbringing, and while mine was odd, it was not difficult. Also advantageous was that some of the lessons I learned growing up in this dynamic environment helped set my management style and expectations for people that I carry with me today. Some of those better lessons:

 

The world is what it is. Expend your energy making it better:

You won’t get to pick your managers, your projects or outcomes in most situations, and trying to do so will wear you out. If you use that energy making your current situation better, regardless of how you got there, you will be much happier, less tired and far more successfull.

 

Question authority, respectfully:

I feared my grandfather, but not in the way that he was an X-Navy man and hence uber-rigid. He was also a good cook, a mentor, a fisherman and an all out amazing guy. I actually feared hurting him, doing things that broke his trust in me. Build a mentoring relationship to your employees rather than just being a strict disciplinarian, and when trust evolves in both directions real collaboration begins. If you feel you have to question authority, do it from a position of mutual respect and not attacking. You will learn more and the relationship will improve instead of deteriorate.

 

Try to take criticism as a positive thing while being realistic with yourself:

A couple of years ago my dad was visiting me and we held an all night poker party with several of my friends. At the end of the night my father and I were standing with one of my better buddies and we asked him about our styles of play. My father gushed about my friend and told me that I’m O.K, but I could be better if I applied myself. My friend competes in poker tournaments and plays frequently at structured casino events and I do not, however, I thought my style of play was pretty good. This criticism was intended to make me a better player and point out what I could do, and compared to the better players standing in front of me he was right, I do not commit myself as much as these two have. If you are going to ask the question take the advice as positive before being offended, which I was until I was honest with myself.

My dad is visiting this week as well, and as I write this he is playing poker at the Peppermill Casino. With all my love dad, todays blog is for you.

Basketball and I.T. Management:

I just finished watching the Golden State Warriors defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the NBA finals. In honesty, I’m a Laker fan and have been for 20 years, but watching Golden State do what they did tonight reminded me that the effectiveness of powerful management combined with consistent communication is almost impossible to overcome. Even if you’re not a basketball fan, the message is clear: for your team to be effective you must manage strongly, communicate goals and then get out of their way.

Cleveland has the best player in the world, and if you want confirmation just watch his press conference after his last loss in this series, he told the world exactly that. I won’t argue one way or the other, honestly he very well may be. The point here is Golden State has an amazing player in Stephan Curry, but also in 4 or 5 other players that worked together to neutralize an amazing James and crew.

Curry worked hard to lead his team, quietly and confidently, allowing his play and teammates to make the statements about their qualifications. He directed the play on court and settled down his teammates when necessary, firing them up as required. James’s teammates are great in their own right, but the distraction of James coupled with his lack of strong direction when it counted cost the greatest player in the world and an amazing supporting cast to fail.

In management I have been surrounded by amazing technical talent, some of it stood way above others in their field. Talent alone will get the job done in a pedestrian need, but to shine as an above average group consistently, you have to pick your stars, sharpen their tools, discourage the distractions and adjust immediately when necessary. Then get out of the way.

Cleveland made an amazing run in the end of the game to make it close, but team depth and patience for Golden State won the game in the end. The average I.T. request is not as critical or as glamorous as the NBA finals, I know. But if you want your team to stand out as champions day in and out, if your choice comes down to having an amazing, game changing talent with too much ego to assist their supporting players, or several talented people with the ability to communicate what they learn and work together, I know which I surround myself with. They just won the finals.

Metrics and Performance Measurements for your I.T. people:

I have heard from several of my peers over the last couple of years that performance metrics are the golden key to evaluating and motivating technical people. The arguments revolve around essential baselines, numbers that ensure work is complete and timely, and lately I’ve heard that technical people respond better to metrics based on quantitative data and not qualitative. I would say that in my experience, these observations are absolutely correct.

Baselines are essential in the technical service world to begin comparisons, set out improvement goals and measure gains. I would also argue that metrics are critical to ensure management is aware of the timeliness of I.T. response and to keep an eye on the all important completion rate. I would also back the argument that technical based people respond to metrics better than non-technical people in general, and in providing performance evaluations they are critical.

Setting up your I.T shop around metrics is critical, however, relying solely on metrics for performance evaluations to understand I.T. performance is a mistake and will lead to epic failures. I work with a group of CIO’s and I.T. pro’s that get together often to compare notes and bounce ideas around the room, and the management failures of this group almost always revolve around either providing no metrics or, usually more disastrously, relying solely on them for information.

CIO’s and I.T. directors need to engage the human elements of their technical employees as well as the quantitative sides to understand what weaknesses exist and how best to address them. Purely quantitative measurements lead to even the most hardened employees feeling disrespected or undervalued. In the performance evaluations that I’ve given it’s when I put the metrics down and talk about how the employee is perceived, accepted, or doing things that metrics cannot define (good or bad) they typically light up in this process. Providing an evaluation of qualitative measures generally pulls technical people out of their comfort zone, which is really when you find out how the employee feels and what they really needed from me to better perform.

It will be a common mantra in my blogs, but I believe that the greatest thing I.T. managers can do is constantly consider how we can get out of the way of great employees while making their jobs easier. Getting all of your employees to be great might be hard, but once there, fighting for them and working to better your peoples productivity is one great reward of management. Use metrics as much as possible to understand where the needs are met, or not, in your business, but do not stop there as the human element is just as critical to both your investigation and their performance.

Write me back with suggestions for how metrics have either helped or hurt you in a job evaluation; I would love to hear what you think.

Why you and your I.T. person don’t like each other:

As an Information Technology professional that has worked in the industry for more than 20 years, I have been fortunate to have worked with amazingly good technical people who’s skills in solving technical problems seemed magical. I have also been surrounded by thousands of customers that were level headed, reasonable and knew succinctly what their technical needs were. Unfortunately, it tends to be where these two types of people meet, which they eventually must, that seems the most puzzling. Frequently these two groups come together and meet in a place where both I.T. people and end users walk away frustrated from the experience.

How does a person with the knowledge and willingness to help, and a person who needs the help and communicates their needs effectively come together and end up feeling often worse from the experience, even if the problem gets fixed? The problem often is found in the willingness to help from the I.T. person, and more specifically the communication style technical people generally use. When an end user asks, say, to get the network fixed for their computer, or their data migrated from their old computer to a new one, or to trouble shoot slowdowns on their system or the networks, they are simply interested in getting the problem fixed and going on with their workday. Their interest usually stops at just making it work.

By contrast a technical professional, while being interested in solving the problem, is also interested in ensuring it does not come back and giving the end user options to accomplish this. Explaining the 6 upgrades available to the end user for a faster computer feels to the technical person as giving them options and letting them decide a better path, to the end user its time consuming and sounds like showing off. As the end user expresses frustration with this process, the support person becomes angry that their help seems unwanted.

The end product of this interaction is a frustrating experience on both sides and ensured continued tensions between I.T. and end users.

To bypass this frustrating experience, as an end user understand your technical support people better by being patient regarding the support provided and understanding that the technical people in your life are truly their to support you. They are attempting to provide options and solutions in a method that includes you and they view this as sharing information, not showing off. As a technical person, learn to read your audience better and understand when time constraints are critical. Know that the frustration your sensing from the end user is an indicator that you should address and condense additional solutions in an email or to a later discussion.

Lastly, as a manager of I.T. people, I recommend constant information and metrics gathering to ensure this communication is not undermining your support services. From a management point of view this tension unchecked and not addressed at both levels leads to a long-term negative view of the capabilities of very talented people. Simple call backs from management to a percentage of end users should give you a feel for the communication that is happening away from your office, as well as reviewing support requests and outcomes with information from both sides. Write me back to suggest other metrics that you have found useful.

I.T. Management Excellence, or Why Does This Blog Matter: William Dippel

It’s a fair question, why does this blog matter. There are thousands of fantastic blogs and a large subset of those is centered on management. I follow some of them and think that a great blog entertains, informs and for me most importantly engages me to think about my management environment differently, more dynamically. I’m also immersed daily in managing a team of diverse professionals and technical “geeks” (they prefer I call them that) through the fascinating job of supporting scientists at home and around the globe.

My team supports a unique, science-based mission that is an extension of the University of Nevada. Thanks to this environment this team is unique itself in staffing and operations, supporting both mundane and highly specialized I.T. resources. For me, I’m a 24-year veteran of this environment, starting my career as an air quality scientist and migrating through the every support role available in an I.T. department. This has allowed me to be supported by I.T. and then provide that I.T. support for the last 18 years of my career.

So back to the beginning, why will this blog matter? By being on both sides of the equation, as well as working as a PC Support tech, Networking Manager, Systems Manager, Security Professional, a CIO and finally an Assistant Vice President I have seen impressively run divisions and not so much. I have worked with people and systems that have touched every aspect of this industry and in ways touch every packet of commodity traffic in the world. And given all of this exposure, the most effective measure of a good team and an effective support division I have found has been how they are selected, managed, supported and treated.

I will touch on most if not all of these aspects, as well as explore some other ideas that did not exist when I started my career and how effective these methods are in the unique management of the I.T. environment. I expect to help, answer questions and inform on both my successes and failures. Most importantly, I desire to learn from this blog, as much as write it, as I will explain early in this blog adventure why I feel that philosophically if you give up learning you should get out of management immediately.

Come join me, let’s see where this leads.