Category Archives: leadership

Leadership going virtual: how we can help managers

…It is important to note that by simply participating, managers transfer their status into the new paradigm; while not participating creates a real discrepancy.

Cecille Demailly, Toward Enterprise 2.0: Making the Change in the Corporation, as cited in Bill Ives’ blog post

Sarah Siegel’s reflections on virtual leadership made me think about the changes that IBM is going through. We’re moving further apart from each other (more remote/mobile workers, more geographically-spread management functions), and at the same time, moving closer to each other through social networking tools. Front-line managers might still see many of their team members face to face, but dotted-line relationships across countries are becoming more and more widespread, and middle managers work in an increasingly virtual world.

Many people struggle to translate management and leadership skills to the virtual world. They feel the loss of contact as we move away from offices and co-located teams, but they don’t have a lot of guidance on what excellent leadership looks like in this new globally-integrated world. There are no recipes or clear best practices in standard management and communication books, in the MBA courses they might have taken, and in the business magazines. Their own managers might also be dealing with the growing pains of the organization.

So some managers participate, and many don’t. The ones who participate are figuring out what works, and they may make mistakes along the way. The ones who don’t participate (out of fear? lack of time? lack of confidence?) might end up finding it even harder to get started, and then people feel confused and isolated because they aren’t getting leadership and direction from the people who are supposed to lead them.

I think managers really do want to help people work more effectively. It’s hard with all the external pressures and the pace of change, tools that are constantly evolving and practices that need to be adapted for the times, and greater challenges from both inside and outside IBM. Communities like the one Sarah Siegel organizes for IBM managers are vital, because managers need to be able to connect with other managers and learn from each other.

There are no clear answers yet. Organizations around the world are still figuring things out. Many of the principles remain the same, but translating them online when you can’t see body language and you can’t make eye contact is difficult for many people.

People need to learn how to not only work around the challenges of a virtual world, but also take advantage of its strengths. And there are strengths. Virtual teams are not just shadows of what we can do face-to-face. Going online brings new capabilities that we can explore.

We need to help managers figure this out. Along the way, we’ll end up helping ourselves and other people, so it’s worth the effort.

I remember growing up and realizing that even though I’m the youngest of three children, my parents were learning all sorts of new things about parenting while raising me. That helped make it easier for me to understand them instead of getting frustrated or upset. It’s like that with managers, too. Managers are learning about working with us just as we’re learning to work with them and with IBM.

So, how can we help? Here are some ways:

  • We can explore and model behaviour. For example, I believe that a culture of knowledge-sharing can make a real difference to IBM. If I experiment with that and model the behaviour, I can help managers and non-managers see what it’s like, what the benefits are, and how to get started. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
  • We can give feedback. I think my manager finds it amusing that I think a lot about what brings out the best in me and I suggest that to him. Managers can’t read minds. Make it easy. If your manager is receptive to the idea, give suggestions and share what you think.
  • We can coach. When the pain of ineffective methods is strong enough to drive change (think about all the frustration over endless reply-to-all conversations), people will look for better ways to do things. Coach people on how to use tools and how to change practices. It’ll take time and they’ll probably get frustrated along the way, but you can help them keep their eyes on the goal (and remember how painful the old ways were!).
  • We can help people see the big picture. Resource actions can sap morale. Impersonal communications can make you feel that the company has drifted from its values. Even if people are afraid, you can work on making sense of the situation, focusing on the positive, and looking for ways to keep moving forward. Vision isn’t just the CEO’s job. What you say and how you act can influence how other people feel about their work and how well they can focus on making things better instead of getting lost in the stress.

There are a lot of individual contributors within IBM. If we see leadership as something everyone in the organization does instead of being limited to those who have the “manager” bit in their Bluepages record, if we remember that leadership competencies are something we can express no matter where we are in the organizational chart and we take responsibility for helping make IBM and the world better, and if we help as many people as we can, we’ll not only get through these growing pains, but we’ll make a company worth working with even more.

Thanks to Rawn Shah for sharing a link to Bill’s blog post through Lotus Connections Profiles, and to Sarah for prompting me to write more about this!

Technical leadership

Technical leadership contributes to career growth and personal satisfaction. Here are some ways you can build your technical leadership:

  • Take on greater responsibilities. Tell your manager or project manager that you would like  to work on more complex tasks, and find out what skills you need to develop in order to perform those tasks.
  • Practice relentless improvement. Look for ways to work more effectively or efficiently, and share your improved practices with your colleagues.
  • Document and share what you know. Write down what you’ve learned. Share your insights through e-mail, blog posts, lunch-and-learn sessions, webinars, and other channels.
  • Mentor others. Coach people on specific skills or technologies in order to improve the capabilities of your team.

How are you building your technical leadership?

Show your work

Show your work

In grade school, I got into a lot of trouble with my math teacher because I didn’t show my work. I wrote the right answer, but I didn’t show the intermediate steps because I was doing a lot of it in my head. After lots of missed points on tests, I eventually got the idea. I needed to show my work so that the teacher could  double-check that I was doing everything properly. Now, I show as much of my work as possible, and not just in mathematics – in every area that I can. I think out loud. I post my mind-maps. I publish my in-between steps. It’s probably one of my most useful habits.

There are a number of reasons why showing your work can help you work better.

Showing your work means that other people can check if it’s correct. This is particularly important when you’re learning. Talking through your processes helps other people verify that you haven’t missed a step or done things incorrectly.

Showing your work can also help you share your knowledge with less effort. If you publish your in-between work, people can learn from it and from your growth.

Showing your work helps you teach more effectively. As you gain experience, you take more and more for granted. Eventually, you might find it difficult to explain topics to people who are new to the field. Your records of in-between work help you remember and empathize with the challenges faced by new people.

You might be afraid to show your rough drafts. What if someone thinks you’re sloppy or indecisive? What if you’re wrong? What if someone steals what you’ve done?

What other things are stopping you from showing your work? We can explore those reasons in a future blog post.

From the ground up: Helping our organizations work smarter

IBM’s latest Smart Work study is about how outperforming organizations have adopted smarter work practices much more than most organizations have. It has a lot of useful insights from CEOs and case studies. Reading it, I thought: This is written for executives. What do the results mean for us on the ground? How can we help our organizations work smarter, even if we’re not in leadership positions? Ultimately, cultural change doesn’t come from just CEOs or consultants – it comes from what we do every day.

The study showed that top-performing companies focus on:

  • People: quickly building skills and collaborating outside traditional boundaries
  • Processes: automatically reconfiguring processes and enabling collaboration in processes
  • Information: integrating data sources and using real-time information for making decisions

What can we learn from that, how can we challenge ourselves, and what are some ways we can get started?

People

How can we learn more, and how can we help others learn?

  • Mentor others and be mentored.
  • Share what you’re learning in blog posts, wikis, and other resources.
  • Help out in communities and discussion forums.

How can we reach out to people outside our departments and outside our organizations?

  • Talk to your customers, and make it possible for everyone to have that kind of contact.
  • Ask people outside your team for help and insight.
  • Look for relevant teams and coordinate with them.
  • Build your own rotational program.
  • Learn from everyone, including partners, competitors, non-clients!

Processes

How can we make our team’s processes more flexible and responsive?

  • Find out how people “work around” processes right now. Instead of punishing them, make the processes more adaptable.
  • Figure out what information you need to choose which process to use. Get that information faster.

How can we build collaboration into the way we work and the tools we use?

  • Learn about collaboration tools. Experiment. Make a habit of using them.
  • Give feedback on tools. Tell people what works, what doesn’t, and what could be even better.

Information

What real-time information could help us make better decisions, and how can we get it?

  • Identify the information you need in order to better understand what’s going on.
  • Talk to other people and figure out what your blind spots are.
  • Speed things up. Simplify processes or put in tools to collect data automatically.

How can we combine information to give us a better view of the big picture?

  • Figure out the kinds of information you combine manually. Invest in making a tool that shows you the big picture, like a dashboard.
  • Make it easier for other people to find and use your information.

No matter where we are in the hierarchy, we can help our organizations work smarter. What are you doing to build a smarter planet?

Women and technical leadership

I’ve read enough books to understand that when it comes to rapid career growth, family, and personal happiness, I can’t have it all, at least not all at the same time. I collect role models and goals anyway, just in case it turns out to be possible.

I think about the choices I make and try to project the consequences decades down the line. Do I look for a role in a growth market, and can our relationship thrive despite the distance? Do I focus on becoming an individual contributor, or do I prepare for people management? Do I focus on Canada or find a global role?

This profile of senior technical women from the Anita Borg institute helped me understand a little bit more of the road ahead. For example, if three out of four senior technical women have a partner or spouse who also works full-time, then maybe W- and I can balance our careers. If half of the single senior technical women surveyed have children, then people can lead even in a difficult situation like that. If senior technical women are more concerned with professional development than with work-life practices, that tells me that work-life practices and the need for flexibility probably won’t be limiting factors. Senior women in management roles think more about new opportunities outside or inside the company than senior women in technical contributor roles think of these things, so senior women in management may be at a higher risk of turnover. This reminds me of a mentor’s advice to stay technical, because strong technical contributions are a way to stabilize your position.

A recent IBM feature highlighted a few female IBM Fellows, the highest technical rank in the company. I’d met a couple of them already, thanks to my passion for collaboration and Web 2.0. I’m glad to work with a company that cares about diversity, and I’m looking forward to learning from everyone’s inspiration.

Stitching together a semi-rotational program; training is not the limiting factor

Choices

At an external networking event a few years ago, I talked to an up-and-coming MBA grad who told me about the rotational program he was in. He was scheduled to spend one year in one department, one year in another, and so on. I envied how he was being groomed.

Deliberately moving through different departments helps you build a wide base of experience and a diverse network. The formality of the program means that the frequent job shifts won’t be taken against you, as they might in an organization that values depth and specialization. Management development programs like that are essential for cultivating people with a broad understanding of the organization. Without sponsors or organizational backing, most people would find it difficult to shift from one part of the organization to the other.

Rotational programs and other leadership development initiatives tend to be offered only to high-potential people, where high potential is not only based on performance, but also velocity. When I was starting at IBM, my eldest sister advised me to find the fast track, get on it, and stay on it. While not entirely following her advice—I’d pick coaching people on collaboration over working tons of overtime on well-understood projects, even though the first doesn’t show up on my metrics and the second doesn’t—I’ve also nudged my manager about some of the development programs I’ve seen. I’ve volunteered for things like the Technical Leadership Exchange and the Take Two women’s leadership program. I read as much as I can, as widely as I can. I learn from people all over IBM.

Envy is a surprisingly useful driver as long as you don’t let it consume you. This reminds me of the invitation-only web development course I heard about when I was in high school. I wasn’t invited—me! and I’d done well in our programming competitions!—so I talked my way into it. It reminds me of how I envied the courses that students in other universities got to take, so I read through the online course materials and learned whatever I could on my own.

It’s not about the world being unfair, and it’s not about other people receiving opportunities that you have to make for yourself. It’s about looking around and saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea. How can I borrow part of that idea and make something for myself?”

Back to rotational programs. I don’t know what fields need to be set in my record for me to show up on HR’s radar (in a good way), but I’m not going to worry about that. I don’t have to wait for permission to learn as much as I can from other parts of this huge organization. I probably have the perfect starting point, actually. During my graduate studies, I learned about research. In Global Business Services, I’ve learned about development and consulting. In my Innovation Discovery engagements, I’m learning about marketing and sales. From our clients and experts, I learn about strategy, operations and finance. I help people in communications and learning and IT. I can take free online courses in almost any area. I don’t have the depth that comes from everyday delivery, responsibilities, and war stories, but I’m learning from people who do.

This matters because there’s tremendous value in being able to break down silos and work across organizational boundaries. The more we can reach out and tap the talent throughout IBM and the world, the more powerfully we can work. If we can learn from different parts of the organization without a formal rotational program, then that broader understanding becomes available to anyone who wants it. If we can influence and inspire without formal authority, then other people can learn emergent leadership too. If we can figure out this different way of working, we can share it with other organizations and influence the world.

I don’t have an executive sponsor or an HR program shaping my career path, but I have many mentors and role models, including some who take a chance on me and give me opportunities beyond my level. That’s enough to make a difference. The limiting factor here isn’t training. It’s my time and energy. There’s so much more to learn.

If you’re waiting for training—or an organizational blessing—look around and see what you can do with what you have. You don’t need a rotational program or a classroom course. Think about what’s really limiting you, and find out what you can do about it.

Thanks to David Ing for nudging me to think about this!