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Over the years, I have worked with a number of born leaders who used their natural charisma and people’s skills to build powerful, goal oriented teams. I have also worked with people who exceeded all expectations while working as an individual contributor, but never really excelled in a leadership role. It is not that these people lacked the ambition or credentials to become a c-suite executive, they just struggled in developing the kind of skills you need to become a leader.
In my opinion, exemplary leadership requires a level of courage, discipline, and persistence that few people can muster. For instance, there are some things that we should do, that we know we should do, but choose not to because they are too hard, because they would require us to leave our comfort zones. In other cases, there are things that we don't do because we honestly believe they absolutely will not make a difference when in fact they would.
Hence the world is short on leaders. I truly believe that financial growth after some point does not come from how technical you are, it comes from your leadership quotient.
“Managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing.” -Warren Bennis
So what kind of skills do you need to take the mantle of leadership?
In the IT sector, you need to have the soft skills to build relationships, inspire others, communicate your ideas clearly, develop plans and execute them to get the results you need within a deadline. A recent survey conducted in the UK reported that 50% candidates for leadership roles lack leadership skills. The results may be different if the same study was conducted in the US, but I am sure the number of qualified and experienced candidates who lack leadership skills would still be high. So what’s the reason behind this?
IT professionals lack leadership skills because they do not think of leadership skills as important. They focus on the technical side of things, and invest all of their efforts and time dedicated to self-improvement to stay updated with the new developments in their area of technical expertise. They sign up for online courses and get certifications in the latest technologies, but they do not work on the soft skills needed to break the glass ceiling. Soft skills are the hardest to master, and I recommend all IT professionals to work on work on them especially if they have the desire to grow financially and professionally
So what leadership skills should you work on as an IT professional?
Most people think of leadership as getting people to accept your authority. Leadership is not about authority, it is about getting people to believe in what you believe, it is about getting them onboard with your vision.
Ideally, you would want to hire people that are already motivated, but we are humans and go through personal and emotional roller coasters. Hence, you have to motivate people and one way to do that is by empowering them. You share your intent with them, and ask them to make decisions as long as they will help them achieve organizational goals. You give them the authority to green-light decisions. People want to be self-directed and they want to achieve mastery in what they do, if you empower them, they will move mountains for you.
They teach Maslow’s hierarchy, the effect of positive and negative reinforcement, and how to motivate people to exhibit favorable behavior in every college. However, theoretical knowledge does not translate into a real life work environment so easily, if that were the case, the world would be full of great leaders. In my experience, you have to understand the motivations of every one in your team. Everyone has a goal in mind, some know it clearly while others have it buried deep inside their subconscious mind. You need to find what the person wants, learn how you can help them achieve their goals, let them know that their goals are important to you, and communicate what you want them to do in return.
Leaders have to be persuasive. Not only do they have to drive specific behavior from their team, they also have to constantly deal with people that do not fall in their domain. They have to negotiate deals, make tough calls, and convince others to do things they may not want to do. All of this requires persuasion. Persuasion, just like any other skill can be learned. Out of the six shortcuts to persuasion, I believe reciprocity and consensus to be the most important factors that drive results.
Leaders inspire others to action by appealing to their instincts. When you understand the goals, and know why you are doing what you are doing, there is no stopping you. History is littered with tales of underdogs taking down the goliaths of their time simply because they were more passionate in their pursuit of their goals. If you give someone a quantifiable goal to achieve within a deadline, and promise them a monetary reward, they may or may not achieve that goal. If you inspire someone to achieve a goal, and tell them why achieving that goal is important, they will exceed your expectations and achieve the goal before the deadline.
Life is an endless journey of discovery, and the most important discovery of all is to discover yourself. A leader has to not only know his strengths and weaknesses, he also has to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the members of his team. The best way to do that is to develop an environment of trust and ask them what they can and cannot do. In most cases, they will tell you exactly where they are lacking and how you can help them.
Without a culture of accountability, nothing will get done. You can inspire people, turn them into the best versions of themselves, and still come up short as a leader. Productivity is driven by accountability. You have to appreciate good performance as soon as you see it, and you have to take corrective measures when someone drops the ball. If people in your organization feel like their performance isn’t being monitored, they will lose the motivation to impress you. If they feel like others around them are getting away with less-than-desirable performance, they will start losing trust in your ability to lead.
When it comes to performance management, SMART goals are the way to go. People need to know exactly what is expected of them, and while you want them to be innovative and require minimum direction, you have to hold them to certain standards. Goals keep your team focused and aligned with the direction of the organization.
Emotional intelligence is knowing the emotional triggers of your team. You need to know what inspires your team members, what drives them, and how they will react in certain situations. You should also be self-aware and know about your emotional triggers. The first step is to be self-aware, and the next step is to be aware of the needs of your team.
So if you are an Information Technology professional and want to become a leader, it is a good idea to invest in yourself – start working on your soft skills, leverage your strengths, and look into leadership traits that you need to develop to advance your career to the next level.
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