Some time ago, I posted an online poll to survey the relative importance of four qualities at various levels in an IT organization. With the help of other bloggers, and through retweets, we got the word out to as many IT folks as possible. We received responses from all across the globe (though most were from the US) representing private industry, higher education, and government. The poll was up for about two months, but most of the responses came within the first few weeks. I'd like to share the results with you.
The survey asked respondents to self-identify their role in the IT organization ("Staff", Team lead", "Manager", "Director", "CIO") and to rank four qualities ("Technical", "Strategic", "Interpersonal", "Finance") relative to one another. This was not just a simple 1-2-3-4 prioritization exercise. Rather, the survey asked folks to consider how each quality fit into the overall importance of their work, and rank the importance of each on a 0-100 scale, where the total of all four also must be 100.
I sorted the data by role, and averaged each quality for that role. This provided a good reduction of the data. The standard deviation was a little wider than I'd prefer, but this was an unscientific poll with only self-selecting respondents.
This is a similar approach that many other surveys have taken in measuring relative importance. However, I admit that my poll was an unscientific one. Yet the results were very consistent across each role, and somewhat surprising.
First, let's review the four qualities in more detail:
- Technical: The tasks that are very "hands-on" by nature, often managing servers or databases, or supporting other systems or desktop environments.
- Strategic: Time spent thinking about the overall IT organization, and how the organization needs to respond to meet new challenges.
- Interpersonal: Building relationships, the "give and take" of interacting with others.
- Finance: Factoring in costs, either at the small scale (tools, etc.) or at the larger scales (budgets, etc.)
Note that these aren't "skills" per se, but qualities that are important to the work performed within each role. You might consider the Relative Importance the contribution of each quality to the role's function in the IT organization.
And how these qualities were ranked relative to each other:
But what does this mean? There are several interesting things about these results. Let me note a few key interpretations of the data, as trends:
1. The vanishing value of Technical, and the balancing act of the manager
Not surprisingly, the relative importance of Technical drops very quickly, the higher you are in the IT organization. For a CIO, the importance of Technical is almost zero. That's not to say that a CIO may not have the skills to, say, set up a Linux server, or to edit web pages. But this is not what a CIO typically does in his or her role, so it ranks as not very important compared to the other qualities.
This is an important trend in understanding how to communicate with those around you, how to frame a position. You may have experienced this, if you ever tried to convince your director or CIO to adopt a new path in technology. You can't make a compelling case based simply on technical merit. Rather, your case will be better received if you focus on how your idea will benefit the organization (Strategic) or will help others to be more effective (Interpersonal).
Also, note what happens at the manager level. Three of the four qualities have equal relative importance; they are equally weighted for the manager. This is often why IT managers have the most difficulty in reaching the next level in an organization. Successful managers have learned to balance their attention across Technical, Strategic and Interpersonal. They have the necessary technical background to address IT issues with their staff, and have developed a more strategic view of the organization.
There's a conventional wisdom for new managers that "what got you here [manager] won't get you there [director]." Rising through the ranks of an IT organization, Technical plays a key role at the staff, team lead, and manager level. In most IT organizations, staff become team lead and manager through demonstrating their proficiency in technical systems. The reward for good work can be more work, and eventually a bump up to the next level.
Until you reach manager. At that role, your technical background becomes less important to reach the next level. But to take that next step to director requires putting aside that technical background, to focus more on larger issues. When you've spent so much time and energy balancing the demands of Technical/Strategic/Interpersonal, it is awfully hard to finally "let go" of Technical so you can focus your attentions on new strategic thinking. Note how Strategic rises considerably in the transition from manager to director, yet Technical drops further in relative importance.
2. The sudden focus on Finance
If you watch the Finance line, it's fairly flat between staff and team lead, and between manager, director, and CIO. But at that increment from team lead to manager, there's a step up.
Speaking from my own background, at the staff and team lead levels, there usually isn't much need for financial planning. Sure, you need to keep costs in mind when you're working on systems or proposing new changes, but most organizations leave the finances to upper management.
And that's what we see in the survey. When you become a manager, you now need to balance a budget for your unit. In some organizations, the manager may only need to provide a purchase plan. In larger units, the manager may be responsible for submitting a fiscal budget.
There isn't much change in Finance as you reach the upper levels of director and CIO. While the scope of these positions is quite different, the thought process is about the same. The relative importance of Finance remains approximately flat after manager.
3. Managing relationships at all levels
It's often true in executive leadership that "it's not what you know, but who you know." While the relative importance of Interpersonal seems flat across the different IT roles, there's a definite upward trend the higher you are in the organization.
Technology staff and team leads need to maintain good working relationships with one another. At the other end, the CIO needs to build partnerships and navigate organizational politics to achieve strategic goals.
Technology is an ever-changing landscape, and CIOs often find themselves the "change agent" for the institution. To implement change successfully, the successful CIO often relies on social networks with others. There should be little surprise in the sudden uptick in Interpersonal's relative importance at the CIO level.