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Passion Or Vocation? August 5, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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8 comments

In a recent issue of Technology & Invention magazine, Mara Vatz wrote about discovering her grandfather’s engineering textbooks from the 1930s.  Herself a recent engineering graduate, she was struck by the difference between those old books and those she recently used.  Her grandfather’s books were filled with the passion of engineering, of being consumed with the excitement of building and creating, of bending the natural world to the will of man for the betterment of society.

Her books, in contrast, were dry and methodical.  They taught engineering as a sequence of steps that could be applied to solve a problem.  They presented engineering as a vocation, just a job, just some rote sequence of steps far removed from the real world of problems to be solved.  The contrast made her sad, longing for a time when her chosen profession seemed more alive to its practitioners.

I have the same worry for the world of IT.  At the risk of cementing my geezer status, I learned computing in a time when everyone wrote assembly code.  I punched cards and booted machines by toggling switches on the front panel.  I learned how to build computers from the transistors up, wire-wrapping individual logic gates to decode address lines.  It was fascinating, consuming, and instilled a passion for technology that I carry with me even today.

Are we instilling the same passion today?  Or has computing become a vocation, a series of steps that you use to solve the problem at hand?  I am certainly not advocating a return to assembly code, but I want to make sure that our newest computing professionals have that same gleam in their eye as I did so many years ago.  The layers of abstraction we’ve built in our systems enable us to create systems that were inconceivable back then, but those same layers remove us from the nuts and bolts of computing.  As those nuts and bolts fade away, our true understanding of computers fades.

Some of today’s IT people have that passion.  You can see it in your best people, the ones who dig in and never let go of a issue, who wake up at 3 AM with the answer to a problem, who run into the office with the next great idea.  But does everyone have that passion?  And if they don’t, should they?

I want everyone to have that passion.  Passion is infectious, and passionate people in IT create passionate people outside of IT.  If people didn’t find that passion in school, we need to pass it to them ourselves.

Much is made of leadership and mentoring, teaching important skills to our teams.  Beyond leadership skills, we need to convey the passion of our field to our people.  We have to constantly demonstrate our love of this stuff, the wonder of a problem solved, the satisfaction of a user helped.  If we aren’t going to get excited about a new tool, and our people don’t get excited, how will we engage our users?

My passion is for computing, of course, but this applies to every discipline.  Do you have a true passion for what you do?  Do you demonstrate it every day?  Do you infect your people with that passion and enable them to carry it to others?  Or is your job just a vocation? If so, I’ll bet your people feel exactly the same way.

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Here Or There? July 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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3 comments

I believe that a leader is responsible for the success of his or her people.  There are two simple rules to make sure that happens:

  1. Help everyone succeed.
  2. Hopefully, here.

Our job is to follow rule 1.  Through a combination of coaching, mentoring, challenging, prodding, wheedling, and cajoling, we want to make our people successful.

Ideally, we also want to achieve rule 2. We want our people to be successful while they are on our team.  Their individual success contributes to the team’s success, and that’s good for everyone. But the unfortunate reality is that most people will achieve rule 1 but break rule 2.  Why?

Sometimes, a member of your team is growing and succeeding faster than you can support them within your organization.  Particularly in these constrained times, there are few opportunities to create new positions to reward and challenge these high achievers.  In these cases, people may leave your organization to become even more successful somewhere else.  Ideally, you’ll help them find that new place, even if it means that you’ll lose a good person.

That’s a challenge to your leadership skills.  “A” leaders will help a high-flier move on, sad to lose a great person but happy to see them go on to bigger and better things.  “B” leaders hoard their best people, denying them the chance to excel by trapping them in their existing positions.  That’s a selfish way to run a business, and those good people will someday just quit anyway.

People need not leave your company to become successful.  They may need to leave your organization to grow and thrive in a different part of the company.  That’s a wonderful scenario for all concerned: the individual gets to succeed, the company retains a great employee, and you gain an ambassador for IT in a different part of the company.

This last benefit can be a huge one.  Very few people outside of IT understand how we really function.  This lack of understanding can lead to confusion, disappointment, and conflict.  By placing experienced IT people into other groups, you create an opportunity for others to learn more about IT, defusing those confrontations and gaining the trust of the business.

Even when good people must leave the company to move on, you should be happy to help them find success elsewhere.  While the future daily interaction with them will be far smaller, having good relationships with other companies always helps.  You never know when you might have to call on that person to assist with a problem, smooth a negotiation, or reach out to someone else.

I’ve had the privilege of being part of both of these scenarios.  It is rewarding to see IT people move on to successful roles elsewhere in the company, and to see how they bring positive benefits back to IT in their new position.  I’ve also mentored people who were struggling with a new opportunity, advising them to take it even when it meant they were leaving my company.  When I see them succeed in their new company, how could I have advised them any other way?  When they provided a beneficial connection to someone in their company, that’s just icing on the cake.

When all is said and done, all that matters is rule 1.  You must achieve rule 1, even at the expense of rule 2.  As a leader, are you ready to let your best people go to succeed somewhere else?

My Mentor: Dr. Evil April 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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2 comments

It is often said that if you want to succeed in any position, find a mentor that will provide crucial advice and valuable feedback.  Choose wisely, and you get a significant advantage in finding success, no matter what your goal.

As leaders we need to find mentors.  Learning by example makes sense for leaders, so it helps to find leaders we admire.  My top choice for a leader that offers tremendous learning opportunities: Dr. Evil.

You may snicker, but the arch-nemesis from the trilogy of Austin Powers movies is a textbook case study for all leaders.  Consider:

  • Dr. Evil has a strong second in command.  His lieutenant, Number Two, quietly provides advice and guidance when needed.  He also keeps things running in Dr. Evil’s absence, keeping the Evil franchise successful even when Dr. Evil is cryogenically frozen for decades.  The lesson? Every leader needs trusted team members to ensure that the day-to-day tactical work gets done.
  • Unfortunately, Number Two is so effective he winds up making more money through legitimate enterprises than Dr. Evil ever would through evil, their core business.  As you would expect, this kind of deviation from the strategic plan angers Dr. Evil.  The lesson? Stay true to your vision, and don’t be distracted by lesser achievements.
  • Dr. Evil thinks big.  He has huge plans to rule the world, and repeatedly sets in place grandiose schemes to accomplish his goal.  Unfortunately, he often does a poor job of conveying his vision to his minions, yielding mixed results and some level of disrespect from his team.  His lack of direct knowledge of market conditions as it relates to appropriate world ransom amounts is a continual frustration.  The lesson? Develop a clear vision and communicate it effectively and repeatedly.  Ensure your vision is aligned with external events as they develop and change over time.
  • Even with a clear vision, leaders must sometimes compromise.  Dr. Evil is no exception. Although his plan to destroy Austin Powers using sharks with “lasers” affixed to their heads is stymied by the sharks being considered an endangered species, Dr. Evil is willing to settle for intemperate mutant sea bass.  The results should be the same, although with less dramatic flair.  The lesson? Know when to compromise so that your ultimate goal is still achieved.
  • Dr. Evil has a difficult relationship with his teenage son, Scott.  Dr. Evil’s lifelong dedication to world domination has left little time for effective parenting, and it shows in his day-to-day interaction with Scott.  The lesson? Although good leaders put in long hours to be successful, always make time for your family.  As rewarding as our jobs may be, the joys of family are priceless.
  • Dr. Evil knows that great success only comes with tremendous willpower and perseverance.   He never gives up, no matter what the setback. In spite of demoralizing events early in his life and later failure at the hands of Austin Powers, Dr. Evil stays focused on the evil tasks at hand.  Often, he is the only one who believes that he will succeed, keeping his head when those around him are losing theirs. The lesson? Never give up, and provide a calming influence to those around you during tough times.
  • As befitting a villain of his stature, Dr. Evil has a series of enviable lairs, including a volcano, a moon base, and a submarine shaped like himself.  While most leaders today do not enjoy such swank surroundings, we can still create an environment that suits our needs.  The lesson? Create a work space that enhances your vision and supports your team, allowing them to be more successful.

Tongue in cheek? A little. Valuable lessons?  You bet.  When you are confronted with your next leadership challenge, ask yourself, “What would Dr. Evil do?”  The answer may be more useful than you think.

Big Stretches April 1, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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2 comments

Early in my management career, I ran the Unix portion of a large corporate data center.  There were close to one hundred people there, managing all the things you need to run a big, multi-vendor environment.  It was fun, challenging, and educational, in more ways than I expected.

It came to pass that one of the senior managers had a new opportunity and would be moving on to a different part of the company.  As was the tradition, there was a send-off event at work, which was always structured as a roast of the honoree.  I had never been to one before, as I was still relatively new to the group.

Imagine my surprise when the Director of Operations pulled me aside and told me that I would be one of the speakers!  I was expected to get up and speak for three or four minutes, telling jokes and entertaining the crowd.  Refusing was not an option, so I started putting together a routine of sorts.

People who know me know that I can speak to large groups at the drop of a hat.  I’ll get up and speak even if you don’t have a hat.  For me, “staff meeting” is just corporate-speak for “captive audience.”  However, “speaking” and “entertaining” are two very different concepts.  I enjoy the former; the latter is in the ear of the listener.  Coupled with being the new kid on the block, this seemed to be an overwhelming challenge. In short, I was terrified.

But I did it.  I got up, started talking, and they actually laughed!  No one was more surprised than I was.  And the benefits of the experience extended beyond overcoming extreme stage fright.  I became accepted into the group, developed more relationships, and became a more effective employee.

Later, I asked my director why he asked me to speak.  After all, he didn’t know me very well, and he was taking a bit of a risk.  He told me he thought I could step up to the challenge and that I would do a good job.

For me, it was a big stretch that had a big payoff.  Because my boss had faith in me, I showed I could succeed in a difficult assignment.  That success translated into other opportunities that helped me and the organization.

When is the last time you gave one of your people such a stretch opportunity?  When did you roll the dice and let someone really go beyond their comfort zone?  This is incredibly hard to do.  A few posts back, I talked about letting people solve their own problems; that is hard enough for some leaders.  Now we’re talking about letting people take on big, public challenges with a high-risk/high-reward payoff.

Can you do it?  Do you have people ready for that challenge?  Are you mature enough as a leader to let them try and support them if they fail?  It’s a test of their mettle to see if they can hit that stretch goal; it’s a test of your leadership skills to make it possible.

Why Are You Here? February 27, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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3 comments

One of favorite quotes is from Ashleigh Brilliant:

It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.

This quote has been immortalized in one of the delightful Demotivator posters, many of which I find endlessly amusing.  Amusing or not, these posters provide many good lessons in leadership in a very backhanded way.

In a recent email exchange, I was reminded that although I have learned a lot from several good leaders for whom I worked, I usually learned the most from the very bad leaders under whom I suffered.  Some people can share heartwarming stories of good leaders whose words and actions served to inspire them.  Everyone can recount endless stories of incredible abuse from thoughtless fools who were somehow given a leadership role in spite of their clear sociopathic tendencies.

I worked for one person who honestly epitomized every bad leadership quality you could imagine.  He punished in public and praised in private.  He never communicated.  His ego knew no bounds.  He sold out his people for his own gain.  He took credit when things went well and threw us under the bus when they went badly.  He would change projects, schedules, plans, and goals at the drop of a hat.  Even when confronted with direct feedback in a group review, he simply ignored it and thanked everyone for their honesty.  He was, in short, an idiot of spectacular dimension.

With each error, each annoyance, each dig and snub, I added to my mental list of “things I will never do when I am in charge.”  I came away with more ideas on how to be a good leader than I ever thought possible.

It’s a sad fact of human nature that we often remember punishment more than praise.  Eat bad food once and you’ll never touch it again, but the memories of a good meal do fade with time.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not suggesting that you “speed mentor” your team with a bout of bad leadership.  Continue to be a good leader, but with the knowledge that those lessons will take a longer time to sink in.  Most importantly, avoid even a single example of bad leadership, because that negative experience will never be forgotten.

To open up the conversation a bit, what good bit of leadership do you remember?  More interestingly, what’s the worst leadership example you retain on your list of “things you’ll never do as  a leader?”