IT management: How to lead an all-star team

The experience of team start-ups is the gift that keeps on giving for any IT leader

by Stephanie Overby, CIO Executive Council — The thrill of booting up a team never gets old for Steve Finnerty, Applied Materials' vice president of IT and vendor services and a mentor in the CIO Executive Council's Pathways leadership development program. Good thing. The 40-year IT veteran and former CIO for Kraft Foods (KFT), Johnson Controls (JCI) and JM Huber has headed up no fewer than three big new teams in as many years since joining Applied Materials, the world's largest supplier of manufacturing equipment to the semiconductor, display and solar photovoltaic industries.

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The experience of team start-ups is the gift that keeps on giving for any IT leader, and not just because they will employ the associated skills over and over again as they rise through the ranks. "It forces you to establish and deepen relationships," explains Finnerty, who served as a judge for the 2010 CIO Ones to Watch awards. "If you're leading a new team, you have to develop pretty quickly a compelling vision of where you're going and a path to get there."

Initial attempts at team leadership can be eye-opening for future CIOs. Paul Capizzi always thought of himself as a people person; it was his good rapport with teammates that drew him to management. But Capizzi, SBLI USA's vice president of IT and a participant in the Council's Pathways program, learned early that being Mr. Nice Guy wasn't nearly enough to successfully lead a new group.

"My biggest mistake in the beginning was trying to make everyone happy so they would work hard," Capizzi says. "You can never make everyone happy. However, being realistic about deliverables dates, helping your team prioritize their workload and holding people accountable has helped my team develop a focused, positive mindset."

An engineer by training and temperament, Capizzi also had to let go his love of doing in favor of leading. "I have to spend more time managing my team and thinking about my budget these days than talking switches, routers and firewalls," he notes.

How to choose an all-star team is perhaps the biggest takeaway for IT up-and-comers. "The leader's there to lead, not to have all the expertise [himself]," says Finnerty, who encourages direct reports to seek out the best and brightest when forming teams. "If they need a great marketing communications person, I say, let's go find the best person even if we have to wait for them. Some people will say, 'It's not fair. You have all the best people.' Well, duh! If you're going to take the hill, you've got to have the 'A' team."

Staffing was the key for Ruchir Rodrigues, vice president at Verizon Communications (VZ), who was charged with creating a consumer products development group within Verizon's IT department -- an organization traditionally focused on back-office support. He sought out IT team members with an inclination for consumer product design, usability or engineering. "There was no model for this," says Rodrigues, a 2010 CIO Ones to Watch Award candidate. "We leveraged small entrepreneurial teams of developers, strategists and designers who were responsible for pitching their own ideas and then helping take them to market." The team has grown every year and now generates millions in revenue for the company.

A promising IT manager doesn't always get to build a new team from scratch. Sometimes you get handed a team that you then need to tune. Capizzi's biggest leadership challenge was stepping into a newly created position as the CIO's lieutenant in charge of -- well, everyone. He'd neither worked in -- nor led -- applications or e-commerce. "Pulling that team together and developing them was a big challenge," Capizzi says. "It was a lot of nights and weekends, catching up, making mistakes and doing better the next time. It took a few years for me to grow into it and make sure we had the right people in the right jobs, which has helped build a solid technical foundation."

Along the way he refined his communications skills. "I've learned how to speak to people on their own wavelengths," he says. And he's learned that more communication is always better, even though it means his calendar is perpetually booked. Partly, that's to be inclusive. "The guy at the help desk may have a great idea about the network," Capizzi says. Partly, it's to balance demand when everyone in the business has priorities they all rate as Number One." Capizzi holds weekly, bi-weekly and daily meetings to keep everyone on the same page. "And as the team gets bigger, it's that much harder," he notes.

But then if an on-the-job learning experience like leading a new team comes too easily, it's probably not worthwhile. There has to be room to grow, says Finnerty. Still, he doesn't want his most promising reports to go down in flames at the challenge. "If they're a little bit over their heads with a new team, the best thing you can do is surround them with expertise to provide advice and counsel," Finnerty says. "If a person needs air cover, that's part of my job as a leader and I offer to do that. In some cases they say yes. But most of the time they say, 'Let me handle it, but let's talk about how to do it.'"

The Council's Pathways Program was created by CIOs to build business and IT leadership skills in senior IT leaders through group mentoring with CIOs, 360-degree competencies assessment, targeted seminars and community forums. To learn more, visit council.cio.com/pathways.html.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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