A few weeks ago, I posted a new survey, asking IT folks to respond to a series of questions about the work they do, where they fit in their organization, and (most importantly) to rank the "relative importance" of four qualities: Technical, Interpersonal, Strategic, Financial. This was not a simple 1-2-3-4 ranking exercise, but rather I asked people to consider the importance of each quality relative to each other and rate them on a 0-10 scale so that the total of all four was also 10.
At first, this may seem like an odd way to ask folks to rate the "importance" of something. But that's because we're too used to ranking things on an independent "Likert" scale. A Likert scale is a psychometric scale commonly used in questionnaires, and is the most widely used scale in survey research. But using a Likert scale would rank each quality independent of one another, where a respondent might indicate that financial and technical were both "important" - even though the reality is that one quality likely outweighs another.
Last year, I reported the results of a similar survey, also conducted here. But that survey was not widely advertised, mostly garnering responses from people who follow my blog (not many.) We had something on the order of 100 (or 150?) responses to that survey. I wanted to repeat the survey, hopefully with a larger N this time.
In addition, I wanted to improve on the survey. The scale had changed (0-100, instead of 0-10) but that was the least of the issues. A flaw in the previous survey was that I asked people to do their own addition. And it turns out that many (not a majority, but "many") cannot or would not do the math. While a few totals ranged 90-110, most of the "outliers" in that survey chose to rank the qualities independently. This led to some inaccuracies in the first survey, as these were weighted equally, and scores adjusted so the total was 100.
This new survey used an improved method, where the survey form provided a running total, to help respondents rate the "relative importance". And the form would not accept numbers that added up to another other than 10. I consider this survey to be a huge improvement over the previous survey, both in quality of the data, and number of responses.
I sought the help of friends and colleagues to "advertise" the new survey. Over 360 of you responded, from all over the world, representing all levels of an IT organization. Most of the responses (over 250) were from higher education. 68 represented commercial companies, 32 were in government, and 10 came from non-profit organizations.
I wanted to share my results here. 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: (click to enlarge)
I find these results very interesting! There's a lot to learn about leadership at different levels in an IT organization. Some thoughts:
1. The vanishing value of Technical
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).
Overall, the quickly falling Technical indicates that IT leaders are finding ways to balance "lead-manage-do". This is an important balance for anyone in IT. As I've said before, with "lead-manage-do", you can pick up to two. That is, you can lead & manage (typical of what we consider most "IT leaders" who need to see the future, but also manage their own teams), or you can lead & do (for example, an "architect" in an organization might need to be very visionary and set direction on architecture, yet at the same time contribute to code libraries or other application tasks), or you can do & manage (this is what most people would call a "working manager" or a "team lead" who manages a small team, but also contributes to the work.) But the reality is that you cannot effectively navigate all three at the same time. And this survey suggests that as folks rise in the IT organization, they are appropriately giving up the "do" tasks so they can focus on "lead-manage."
2. The balancing act of the team lead
Note what happens at the team lead level. Three of the four qualities have equal relative importance. Technical, Strategic, and Interpersonal are equally weighted for the team lead. This balance may be a strength at that level in the organization but will prove to be a difficulty in reaching for the next level in an organization. Successful team leads will have learned to balance their attention across Technical, Strategic and Interpersonal. They have the necessary technical background to address IT issues with their teams, but have started to developed a more strategic view of the organization. And successful team leads have learned to form interpersonal relationships with those above and below, often acting as a kind of "interpreter" or "interface" between the two levels.
But there's a conventional wisdom for new managers that "what got you here won't get you there." Rising through the ranks of an IT organization, Technical plays a key role at the staff and team lead 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 team lead, anyway. At that role, your technical background becomes less important to reach the next level. And to take that next step to manager requires putting aside more of your technical background, to focus more on the larger issues. When you've spent so much time and energy balancing the demands of Technical, Strategic, and Interpersonal, it is awfully hard to finally "let go" of Technical so you can focus your attentions on new strategic thinking.
Interestingly, in the previous survey, this collision occurred at the manager level, not the team lead. I can only guess why the shift. One possible reason is that respondents to the previous survey were from IT professionals who had not gone through a leadership development program (at least, I know many of those who responded indicated as much to me personally or via email) where much of the "advertising" for this year's survey was conducted via a mailing list for "alumni" of the IT Leaders Program from MOR Associates. (Disclaimer: that's not an advertisement for ITLP, but I did go through the program and found it very helpful to me.) Perhaps those who have "graduated" from ITLP have already learned to delegate their "do" tasks to their teams, shifting the collision from the manager to the team lead.
3. The drop in Interpersonal at the CIO level
The trends all seem to follow a predictable progression. The falling importance of technical, the rising value in Strategic and Interpersonal; these are not very surprising. But at the CIO level, things change. While other trends continue, the importance of Interpersonal drops sharply. This is different from the previous survey, where Interpersonal had a sudden (but small) uptick at the CIO level.
Why do CIOs not value interpersonal relationships as much as the directors below them? One reason might be that CIOs suddenly find themselves at the "top" of their IT organization, and perceive greater latitude in making decisions. Thus, they might assume interpersonal relationships to be less important. However, the director still needs to curry a favorable relationship with the CIO, to get buy-in on new initiatives - and with the managers below them, to make projects run more smoothly.
Or perhaps the high response rate from higher education plays a role here, in that directors often need to interact with faculty, department chairs, and chancellors to bring change to their campus. This requires a significant effort, and is helped by forming relationships with those around you, and with your constituents.
Overall, this was a very informative survey, and I want to thank everyone who participated. You have helped build a fresh understanding of IT at different leadership levels in the organization, from staff to CIO.