4 strategies for managing junior IT professionals

Spring and summer school sessions have ended, and, if you're like a number of organizations around the globe, you have a giant pile of resumes and just a handful of openings for some fresh faces to join your firm at the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder. Hiring the right person is a difficult process, but managing the new employees--or, let's be honest, managing any employee--is even more challenging. Nobody sets out to be a bad manager, but that transformation can happen over time if your policies and your behavior are left unchecked.

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It doesn't have to be that way. Indeed, there are a few concepts that are central to being a good manager to junior IT professionals who are eager to make their mark. Let's take a look at some of the most important tenets to managing junior administrators--and, really, anyone who is your direct report.

Allow People to Fail.

Failure should be welcomed, particularly in junior roles. Otherwise, there is no room for growth.

We're all attuned to avoid failure. It seems like it's basic human nature to steer clear of making mistakes and causing disappointment. However, to write off failure as simply a wrong to be avoided ignores the basic principle of professional growth--by making mistakes, causing a problem and enrolling ourselves in the process of rectifying that problem, we grow, learn and mature in our careers.

Failure is downright scary at higher levels; with more responsibility and more access, more can go wrong. Limiting a junior administrator to a couple of organizational units in Active Directory or a single department's set of computers to upgrade to Windows 7, on the other hand, allows for freedom to expand, learn, and fill out holes in knowledge and experience. Plus, what's the worst that can happen--your upgrade is delayed by a couple of days and you need to reimage 50 machines you were already imaging anyway? Let people fall into a trampoline of sorts that bounces them back up to where they were with the knowledge and experience they gained on the way down.

Remember the old adage: Give people just enough rope to hang themselves and see what happens. Your juniors will appreciate that they're able to deal real tasks with real impact--and they'll know you're right behind them to course-correct when necessary, but also to allow them to develop their potential as administrators in their own right.

Explain the Reasoning Behind Decisions and, Ultimately, Processes.

In our busy lives and the fast-paced corporate world, it's easy to resort to giving commands and barking orders and expecting your deputies and lieutenants to simply follow through.

Make no mistake--in some cases, that is a valid way to get things done, particularly when problems arise and crises must be resolved. In other instances, though, demonstrating a careful, prudent thought process and walking junior administrators and other direct reports through alternatives to an issue, weighing potential solutions and deciding on a final outcome can be very advantageous. There are two reasons for this.

Good decisions come from enrolling all affected users and administrators. Others may have valuable input or bring to light issues you haven't yet considered. Plus, it's rare to find supervisors who actively seek input from their subordinates and engage in discussions about key policies. Make it clear you'll make the final call, but make it equally clear that you solicit the conversation and value the results that come from it. (Frankly, this is good advice for any manager, not just for IT pros managing other IT pros.)

Direct reports learn what concepts and ideas you value and what concerns you. From seeing such conversations and witnessing your transparent decision-making process, they begin to pick up on your steps, the questions you ask, the angles you consider and, in short, they grow as leaders and decision-makers, too. As you well know, the higher you go in the corporate food chain, the more emphasis is placed on your ability to make good decisions quickly. That's an acquired skill&mash;and one you can properly demonstrate to your direct reports.

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It's easy for someone just out of school to think he has all the answers and knows best. We've all been that cocky, upstart 22-year-old right out of school who considers entrenched wisdom and process dumb. Teach your subordinates that "Why don't we just..." is never a good way to start a sentence and perhaps "What is the preferred way..." is a better icebreaker.

Don't Be Afraid to Invest in Training.

Training is perhaps the most important part of professional development, yet in almost all organizations its value is substantially overlooked.

This is understandable on the surface. The common reason training isn't a big part of career development and human resources is a concept I call "fake intellectual theft"--managers are afraid they'll spend their scarce budgets on very expensive and often quite specialized training for their direct reports, only to watch them carry all that knowledge directly to another organization, probably for more money. The natural reaction to the learn-and-leave effect--which honestly does happen, but not to the extent that is feared by most managers--is to stop investing in training.

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This is shortsighted. It tells your good employees you don't care about their development and don't trust their career ambitions, which all but pushes them out the door at their first realistic opportunity. Your less-good (to put it politely) employees are the ones who end up staying, and of course they'll be at that same mediocre level of proficiency because, well, you've already decided not to train them. You've doomed yourself to an average team, at least until you decide to shake things up.

Don't Promote People Beyond Their Competence.

"This one seems obvious," you may say. The fact is, there is a lot of truth to the old saying that people end up in a position one level higher than they're actually capable of fulfilling with any level of competence. Most of corporate America is full of managers; sometimes those managers happen to not be such great managers. Why do we so often take technical people who are great at doing technical things and suddenly ask them to not do technical things any longer but, instead, control projects and resources?

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Instead of watching this happen to your team, think differently. Let people transition gradually into roles of more responsibility. Create different growth paths within your team or your organization. Disallow management responsibilities from completely eclipsing these technical employees' true calling. Above all, make such positions valued as much as higher-level management positions are considered valued.

Being a manager is tough work, but by taking these tips and suggestions into account, you can hopefully begin to foster a more positive work environment within your organization and place the emphasis on rewarding good people with growth opportunities and room for development.

Jonathan Hassell runs 82 Ventures, a consulting firm based out of Charlotte. He's also an editor with Apress Media LLC.

This story, "4 strategies for managing junior IT professionals" was originally published by CIO.

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