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A senior IT executive has transformed a longtime interest in bettering his leadership skills into an active pro bono consulting practice.
By Prakash Upadhyayula, CIO, Systems Delivery, Global Shared Services, Wolters Kluwer
I am passionate about leadership, and I wholeheartedly agree with management guru John Maxwell, who contends that leadership is not an exclusive club reserved for those who were “born with it.” Combine desire with skills that can be acquired, and anyone can evolve into a leader. “Leadership is developed,” Maxwell says, “not discovered.” But how do you develop yourself into an effective leader? There has never been an easy answer to that question. And in today’s nearly constantly changing business environment, managing and inspiring a team is an even greater challenge.
I have developed my own leadership skills on the job, and I have the battle scars that go along with them. But I don’t believe that leaders have to be forged by fire. That’s why I dedicate a significant amount of my time to leadership development -- coaching others who, like me, possess technical expertise but have a desire for more responsibility.
I had the great fortune of learning from excellent leaders, managers, and mentors. And it’s the lessons they’ve taught me that I’m eager to share with others — and not simply those already in the technology management ranks. CIOs and CTOs like me tend to be a bit set in our ways. It’s four or five levels down from that where you’ll find the individuals who are hungry to learn and make a difference.
They’re the real influencers.
They’re the true change agents.
Organizational hierarchies and titles are not what’s important to being an effective leader; rather, it’s believing that the team is of paramount importance and modeling the values that benefit the team.
And that’s where I see the most value in preaching what I practice — at the ground levels of the organization. Whether it’s a two-day coaching session or a workshop involving a half-dozen people over several weeks, I think I can offer something useful to that top 10 to 15 percent of IT professionals who are passionate about becoming effective leaders.
After I got my master’s degree, I began working for an IT leader who founded his own technology company. I was a little confused by some of his leadership tactics in the beginning. He would ask me about a new technology or my opinion about a project or my thoughts about a certain approach. I was fresh out of school and full of enthusiasm and opinions, which I offered in abundance. But when he would take an approach that was completely different from the one I had suggested, I was baffled. I wondered why he even asked for my input.
It was only once I left that company and went on to work in larger firms that I realized the value in his leadership tactics, as I found myself in need of input from my team. The first time I made a decision that was different from what someone had suggested to me, I finally understood why he did what he did. It wasn’t that he didn’t value my thoughts. Quite the contrary — he benefitted from the different perspectives he gathered, even though the decision ultimately rested with him.
To this day, I gather input from as many people as I can before I make a choice. It’s no silver bullet for decision making, but it does lead to better outcomes, though I’m careful never to take this to an extreme. I don’t want to end up in a state of “analysis paralysis.” I’ve seen certain leaders discuss options endlessly. If you’re afraid of making a decision, then just pass the decision on to somebody else. Don’t keep delaying it by discussing it over and over.
When I moved to a larger company, my director and CTO would sometimes ask me if I was sure I had all the information I needed to make a decision. I always told them I had enough good information to do so. Could I have gotten 100 percent of the necessary information? I don’t know if you can even define 100 percent, but even if you could, would the added information produce the perfect decision? I would say no. Not making a decision is worse than making a bad decision. I will put a stake in the ground, and if it turns out to be wrong, I’ll apologize and correct it. Leaders take ownership of their decisions. And if it turns out to be the right decision, I will give credit to my team because we worked together to achieve the results.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to honor the past. It is often easy to look back and judge a decision as good or bad, but I would argue there is limited value in judging past decisions. It is far better to assume that people made the best decision they could with the information they had at the time. By taking this approach, leaders demonstrate that blaming isn’t useful; what’s important is building the path that leads you forward. Clearly, the past is worthy of review so that we can all learn and grow, but doing the review in a positive and constructive manner is what is critical.
As I progressed throughout my career, I had managers who would approach me and ask me my opinions about how they were performing. Initially, I thought they were asking me just to be polite. But as I developed trusting relationships with them, I was more comfortable telling them what changes they might want to consider. I felt comfortable enough to tell one CTO that he should stop swearing. I explained that some people swear at work to send the signal that they’re the boss. “But you’re already the boss,” I told him. “Why do you need to swear?” He looked at me and said, “Nobody ever told me that.” I explained to him that some on my team had expressed concern about his language. From that point on, he was much more careful with his words. And although it’s been a while since we’ve worked together, whenever I see him he’ll tell me, “Prakash, I’m not swearing.” I told a director with whom I worked that I found myself having to fix a lot of messes that, while they went back a few years, were ultimately his responsibility. He did not make the mistakes personally, but they happened on his watch. He agreed that he had not done a good job addressing the issues and that it was ultimately his responsibility. He needed my help to rectify them.
Now that I am in a position of leadership, I make it clear that the people on my team can approach me to discuss any topic or criticism under the sun. That doesn’t guarantee that I will agree with them. I am very comfortable with disagreement, and I want them to be, as well. But I want to be able to have those uncomfortable conversations without them having any fear of collateral damage, even if it’s just to vent about something that’s bothering them.
Letting Go of the Reins
I’ve been directly reporting to my current CIO, Andrew (A.J.) Lang, for more than seven years. He’s been a huge influence and has actually helped to mellow me out a bit. One of the biggest leadership lessons I’ve learned is one we arrived at together.
Several years ago, I found that he and I were attending a lot of the same meetings. Indeed, I saw several of my peers bring their managers and directors to meetings. But to me, that seemed like a waste. I told A.J., “If we’re both going to these meetings, something isn’t right. We shouldn’t be in the same conversation unless it is my performance review or a one-on-one.” He agreed. Now, we are rarely in the same room unless there is a true strategy call or update that we need to give jointly. It’s so important to push the responsibility to the right level and trust that the team will deliver. This frees the leader to focus on the unique value that you as a leader bring to the organization and helps others to develop into effective leaders, too.
It was the desire to share lessons like these that initially led me to accept an offer from a colleague to come and do a couple of sessions on leadership with his team. Since then, I’ve done internal workshops — a day, half a day, sometimes multiple meetings of several hours spread over a number of weeks — with groups of, say, a half-dozen people. I’ve done this outside my organization, too, with vendors or partner organizations. Sometimes I do one-on- one coaching. I’ve had contact with more than 100 people through these sessions.
I don’t get paid for this leadership development work with up-and-coming leaders. But I get three things out of the time I spend. First, I get to develop great relationships with talented people that I can take with me throughout my career. I would say 10 percent of the people I’ve worked with are still in touch with me. They’ll call me occasionally and say, “Prakash, I want to set up a time to talk to you about a few things.” I’ve developed a robust network of people I trust.
Second, being a mentor allows me to reflect on my own actions and decisions and think about how I can approach things differently in the future. Finally — and most importantly — I am repaying those who’ve molded me by sharing knowledge I’ve learned with the next generation of leaders. I have to pass it on.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)