Managing other people is always a tricky task. Managers in any field need some serious skills in their utility belt if they want their teams to thrive. But for every story of an effective or inspiring manager, there seems to be ten stories of managers resented by their teams.
The information technology (IT) field is no exception. In some ways, managing a team in IT can be particularly complex. The technical skill necessary to thrive in this field can become a conundrum when hiring and promoting. What matters more in successful IT management: Interpersonal skills or technical ability? Do you look for someone with great time-management skills or someone with the most knowledge of your systems? Ideally, the candidate would have all of the above.
“The velocity of change in IT has been great, and the traits and experiences of a good manager have had to change at the same pace,” says Ray Vazquez of Enterprise Risk Management. “In a world that is as interconnected as it is today, with the dawn of the ‘Internet of Things’ at hand, the qualities and experiences of a good IT manager are broader and more demanding than they have ever been before.”
The demands of a strong IT manager are great, but the potential upside is equally significant. “The IT managers that are masters in good project management are the ones who get a seat at the executive table and enjoy the opportunity to influence the organization beyond IT,” Vazquez says.
7 Attributes needed for successful IT management
So what exactly does successful IT management require? We asked IT professionals and managers alike about the qualities that matter most when leading an IT team—and why.
“In IT, it’s easy to feel like you’re expected to know everything at all times,” says Marshall Anderson, president at Tektonic. “Some IT managers deal with this by never admitting when they don’t know something, but nothing will lose your team’s respect faster than always having an answer to every question, even if it’s wrong.”
Contrary to what you might think, being the most knowledgeable isn’t necessarily what makes someone a good manager. Anderson says a far better route is to admit you don’t know, and then seek out the answer. Anderson says you’ll end up looking much smarter acknowledging your limitations than giving the team a confident-sounding wrong answer.
“Be humble, ask questions and don't be afraid to ask for support yourself,” says Trave Harmon, CEO of Triton Technologies. “Today, alone, I got over half a dozen questions from our technicians on the field and from their supervisors. I was proud of it. We all felt like a team.”
2. Passionate about security
Regulatory compliance and cybersecurity are often treated as irritations that Vazquez says many IT managers do the absolute bare minimum to appease. But if it was ever possible to get away with the bare minimum, that window is quickly closing.
“IT managers need to stay on top of existing and emerging regulations while also cultivating a culture to do the right thing, even if it’s the most unpopular thing in the room,” Vazquez says. “The minimalist approach continues to result in companies getting breached and paying regulatory fines for non-compliance.”
Become an asset to your company by getting amped about security, and bring your team along with you.
IT managers will feel pressure at times. Managing a team means being responsible to meet deadlines, keep communication lines active and represent your team’s progress to the rest of the company.
“When things aren’t going to plan, it’s a huge benefit to you and your team to be able to calmly assess a situation and respond without panicking,” Anderson says. “If you haven’t started already, get comfortable staying calm in the face of deadlines or technical issues.”
4. Emotional intelligence
“Learn to create psychological safety on your team, person-by-person,” advises Thomas Cox, owner of Tom on Leadership. “That requires EQ and caring about each person as a whole person.” Cox also explains that when team members feel safe, they feel freer to admit confusion, acknowledge mistakes and work towards growth.
“Learn to demand excellence based on what each person's own values are, plus the group’s shared values.” Cox says knowing how people learn and how to honor different values are vital skills to help each member reach their fullest potential.
5. Smart delegation
“One of the best traits that an IT manager can have is to be able to delegate effectively to people who have the best skill,” Harmon says. “What I keep finding are individuals who want to take on an entire project themselves. Delegate. Don't think you know everything, because you don't.”
Harmon has seen lots of problems with IT managers who want to catch and correct all mistakes themselves.
“It’s usually about arrogance,” Harmon explains. “If you've made a mistake, we can work together to solve it and prevent that mistake from happening in the future.”
It’s important to remember that you have people around you for a reason and to lean on them accordingly—it’s not a sign of weakness.
6. Time management
Unfortunately, many IT managers plan their projects no differently than many of us who procrastinated and then turned in assignments in college,” Vazquez says. “They pull the equivalent of ‘all-nighters,’ cutting corners; hoping that the professor will not notice.” Vazquez explains that this kind of procrastination has cost companies millions of dollars in blown projects, regulatory fines and upset customers.
“IT is—and always has been—asked to do more with less,” Vazquez says. “How you manage your time is critical to meeting the significant expectations placed on the IT organization.”
For Anderson, calm troubleshooting is the key.
“The best IT managers calmly work through steps to find a resolution. It’s the difference between spending hours on a problem and finding a solution quickly.”
“I have interviewed many students over the years and asked them why they are majoring in technology,” Vazquez says. “The answers I typically get are all about themselves, like, ‘I like technology,’ or, ‘I love to hack.’”
Vazquez says he rarely hears students talk about challenging the industry or using their skill to do something for other people. He says answers that focus on how they want to use technology to give the business a competitive advantage or create new products that enrich people’s lives would really stand out in having a big-picture focus.
A wider field of vision could benefit anyone, but IT managers will need to look ahead to truly thrive. Vazquez says IT managers have to be in continuous learning mode to keep the company competitive.
“You must not only have a passion for technology, but you must also have a passion for the outcomes you want to help organizations achieve,” Vazquez explains. “Companies are starving for technology talent who want to change the business and leave it better than they found it.”
Learned, not inherited
While you might be a natural in some of these areas, Vazquez points out that many of these traits are skills that can be developed in IT managers. “You can build these skills now, while you’re still in school.” He recommends taking a course in project management and even considering earning your Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. “It will pay dividends in your career,” he adds.
“As you continue on your educational journey, consider the impact you want to make in an organization,” Vazquez says. “You will find a long list of offers and opportunities—companies are waiting for you to take them to the next chapter of the digital revolution.”
Are you interested in paving the way and leading an IT team into the future? Check out our article, "How to Become an IT Manager: 3 Ingredients in the Recipe for Success."