Updated: Mar 26, 2021
People are still the best asset of any company. In IT, cheap resources oftentimes become more expensive in the end.
[I dedicate this article to the brave women and men I had the pleasure of working and learning within the IT team of CEMEX USA, most especially to Penny Ogden, Maurice Starbird, and Mark Hoffman. We will miss your passion, dedication, laughter, and healthy arguments. I will forever cherish the learnings and the friendship]
An IT team is no different than any other sports team. We play different roles and positions to deliver our best and to be the best in the league. We want to be champions — and teams who win multiple championships play cohesively, with passion, have the right mindset, discipline, a good game plan, and most of all — an impeccable execution of that game plan. Once in a while, some teams will stumble upon a Michael Jordan, a Leo Messi, a Cristiano Ronaldo, a Jerry Rice, or a Tom Brady, but typical teams would have to depend on each other play at their peak performance every single match to outplay their opponents. A team that out-behaves their opponents outperforms their opponents. There is simply no substitute for grit, passion, perseverance, teamwork, and continuous improvement.
Besides picking the right players, a good coach — a leader that the players can look up to is key. Someone who can tell the players what they don’t want to hear, see the things they don’t want to see — to become the players and people they always want to be, this is the definition of a coach according to coach Tom Landry (the coach who won two Super Bowl titles, 13 Divisional titles, and played in 12 Championship games, and drove a team to win 20 consecutive winning seasons -- a record that stands to this day). Great leaders help people excel and grow. Great leaders make their teams the best that they can be. Sometimes they can be tough and merciless. They don’t like artificial harmony. Like our parents, we sometimes get reprimanded by them not because they don’t love us, but because they do genuinely care; they want us to do course corrections early-on, they want us to be the better versions of ourselves. A bad habit is simply hard to break. To be good and to excel at anything, you need at least 10,000 hours of training with the right habits. Perfect practice makes perfect. Practicing the wrong moves, bad strokes, and the wrong attitude and mindset is futile but rather counter-productive. It will just make you worse than better. This is why we need the right coach, a sensei, or a guardian angel — to tell you the right from wrong.
A Manager vs. a Leader
Your title makes you a manager; your people make you a leader. To care about people, you need to care about the people. Theodore Roosevelt once said, ”Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The top priority of any leader is the well-being and the success of the team. That is the main job description of any manager that we often overlook.
When we over-protect our kids, they oftentimes become weak and perhaps grow with fewer defense mechanisms, both physically and psychologically. We need to develop our teams according to their strengths and weaknesses, hone their potentials, and put them under the test of fire. We need to train them to be the better versions of themselves and perhaps be the better versions of ourselves if possible. This will perpetuate evolution and foster continuous team improvement. Again, true leaders breed other leaders.
When cheap becomes expensive
In IT, cheap resources oftentimes become more expensive in the end. Amidst the global pandemic, IT jobs remain pervasive. In fact, IT jobs are more in-demand despite this global economic downturn that we are currently experiencing. According to salary.com, almost 90% of the most in-demand jobs nowadays are IT-related, except for the COVID-19 Insurance agent that made it to the list.
Looking for the right IT personnel is really a tough task nowadays. Besides the technical savviness in dealing with computers, IT folks are also expected to be good in dealing with people since it’s typically inherent in the job to deal with people who are often frustrated with the systems they use. Moreover, we also expect at least 5-10 years of experience, business acumen, understanding of the newest and greatest technologies, a college degree, and master’s preferred. How much do you think that would cost? Then, after realizing the "how much part," some employers would realize that they don’t have the budget for them and would settle to employ the second-stringers, some bench-warmers, or some little leaguers -- only because that’s what they can afford. Then, after many complaints, issues, systems that are always down, bad attitude, poor customer service, and lack of business sensitivity, they repeat the hunt. Only this time around they can only fish the ones that were already filtered-out by the natural selection process. Of course, the better ones were already pirated by another company willing to pay dearly for talent and understand people's value.
Hire the best
If you can. If you can’t, then be at least be willing to spend time, money, and effort to train people without any expectations that they will stay with you for long. Not unless you can engage the people, prepare them for something bigger, promote them, motivate them, and love them so that they would love you back — chances of maintaining the good ones would all depend on how much a leader is committed to the process. Which process? The process of genuinely caring for the people.
Engage or disengage
Belief in senior leadership is one of the top engagement drivers. Having employees at the front-line that are well-connected to the “why or the raison d’ etre of the organization” will determine its success or failure in the end.
No artificial harmony. Foster 0 politics environment. You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.
According to a recent HBR article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, “Performance is always the result of ability and motivation. When motivation is low, the ability can compensate, and vice-versa. This is why even disengaged employees can still do something they are skilled or experienced at fairly well. They may even deliver great results despite being on autopilot.”
“People tend to perform better when they are intrinsically motivated — or when they truly and deeply care about the activity in question, to the point of losing themselves in the work and experiencing a state of flow. But for most employees, this is an exception rather than a norm. While highly engaged workers may not need a reason to perform to the best of their capabilities and tend to give 100% even if you don’t spend much time motivating them, disengaged workers are more likely to wait for your orders, and need to be extrinsically motivated. This means using sticks and carrots and being clear about the reasons your employee should bother making an effort with the task at hand.” It is also important to discern when to “disengage” or “let go” of an employee and it is better to do it sooner rather than later.
The saying, “You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you,” goes both ways. Take these following examples in order of priority:
• Your kids - since you cannot replace them, your only option really is to influence them to be the better versions of themselves. This is intrinsic change, very powerful but very hard since it takes two to tango.
• The team you lead - if you can’t change somebody to be better versions of themselves to contribute to the team, then your only option is to “change” or disengage them off the team, the faster the better. Sometimes, it may even help them in the process.
• Your co-workers - if you can’t fit in your current team or organization because of conflict in values and principles, then perhaps it’s really time for you to find another one. This is "outplacement" or removing yourself in your current environment since the first two options already failed, or perhaps you simply don't fit there — and this is the last resort you have.
In the end, there is no bad weather, just the wrong choice of clothing. Work the "team", then the "problem." When faced with a problem or opportunity, the first step is to ensure the right team is in place and working on it. Win Right. Strive to win, but always win right, with commitment, teamwork, and integrity. These are some learnings from the Trillion Dollar Coach - Bill Campbell.
[Happy retirement, Penny, Maurice, Mark, and to all our teammates in CEMEX retiring today. To all of you -- you can’t retire from being great!]