The CTO’s Role – Team Building (Part 1) #cbchat

Embracing Collaborative Authorship
[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Joe Goldberg]

Note: Some time ago, I asked a colleague to share her insights about the role of the Chief Technology Officer.   It’s no secret that that is the job I want to have when I grow up, and I’d noticed her leadership. This is the first in a series of personal responses to the insights she shared with me in a quick email that knocked my socks off when I read it a few weeks ago. I invite you to share your perspective, whether as a team leader or team member, in the comments for this blog or on your own blog. Her initial advice appears in blue and my reflections in black.

Note: This is one in a series of blog entries exploring the role of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Director of Technology. Please be sure toread the whole series! 

(1)    Form a fantastic IT team – hire folks with integrity and a fabulous work ethic who WANT to serve others. Make sure you create an atmosphere that includes a great working environment where folks want to remain over long periods of time. Include perks like the latest desktop computers, mobile devices, and supporting software. Keep the perks coming. A trivial amount of your budget can make your IT Team feel appreciated and important.

“Who do you think I can hire to build online databases,” asked a CTO friend of mine, “the way you do?” Although I wasn’t available for the job–although we later ended up working with each other–I recommended a paraprofessional staff member. This put my colleague in a bit of a quandary. How do you hire a paraprofessional for a professional level position? He came back to me and told me, “I’m not sure I can hire her for the job since she’s not a professional.” A few months later, the person I’d recommended for the job had been hired as a professional and continues in that position even now. 

The work she’s done for the organization–a school district–has been invaluable and is widely recognized. Those professionals who scoffed didn’t realize that the paraprofessional had an incredible drive, integrity and work ethic, making her an invaluable asset worthy of the superintendent’s praise. In my experience, hiring folks with integrity and work ethic eliminates many of the challenges one faces when hiring people. That’s the value of a recommendation from someone you trust.

In fact, when I look at my greatest successes as a leader, it is to point to situations where I hired someone that turned out to be a self-starter, self-motivated, and was always asking themselves–without any prompting–“What do the people in the organization need? What would make us better as a whole?” This is true whether the position is that of secretary or a highly educated professional. One of my assistant superintendents often would say, “Your attitude is more important than your skills.” When you find someone who can do both, Wow, you have done more for the organization than if you’d tried to do the work yourself. For example, hiring decisions I’ve made have saved districts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not because *I* knew how to do something, but because the person I hired could apply what they knew to make a difference in our current operations. For me, that is teamwork without peer.

Yet, let’s not underestimate the people you have on staff. One of the reasons I dislike From Good to Great’s bus analogy (get the right people on, get the wrong people off) is that as an educator, I don’t see people as unwanted weeds to be plucked. Rather, each person has a path, different experiences that have led them to where they are now, and interactions in the organization that have soured them, failed to use their talents to the betterment of the organization. How can I build on those strengths? The value of understanding that lesson, in my own experience, came over time and helped me answer another key question–“How can I hold you accountable as my team leader?”

It’s that last question that took me awhile to learn and, not surprisingly, I learned it from someone I didn’t hire, one of the people that previous bosses called “a survivor,” not a term of endearment. The idea of survivor is someone who endures through every administration, no matter what happens, they find a way to keep faithful to what they believe is important (maintain integrity) and find a way to hold leadership accountable. A survivor can easily grow bitter, lonely, and defiant…it’s easy to see how district leadership moves to silence or violence–a la Crucial Conversations–with survivors. Yet, when problems arise, the survivor has the organizational knowledge to resolve key challenges. The problem for organizational leaders who discount “the survivor” is a failure to listen and respond to the defiant demeanor of the survivor rather than the content of the conversation.

As a result of the richness of my cultural background, I found respect to positions of authority to be deeply ingrained in my being, almost without conscious thought. That means I have to deliberately assert myself when dealing with organizational leaders with higher positional rank than I. Learning to accomplish that has involved a lot of introspection and reflection.

As a team leader and member–for the two are inseparable–it is critical to create learning environments where others feel comfortable challenging the path chosen as a team or as an individual. Power flows from the people we lead, who allow themselves to be led by us. When I go into a meeting where the stakes are high, emotions run deep, and people have different opinions of how to get things done, knowing where my team stands gives me strength unlike that of “standing alone against the horde.” The latter is self-righteous–and sometimes you need that–but the former makes challenging the status quo much easier. The web of relationships built with your team supports you as a leader. I can only hold hand over heart in thanks for this lesson learned.

Having worked within an inter-dependent team as a member, I hope to create situations that allow partnering on projects rather than isolation. In my role a team member, my supervisor always made every effort to get us what we needed to do the job. I could never complain that I lacked for the tools to get the job done…and this worked because as a committed team member, I wanted to ensure that we delivered on our self-chosen objectives (our appraisals were based on goals we set for ourselves that aligned to the organization’s mission, which is heady stuff!). When I became a coordinator, ensuring that my team had the tools they needed to get the job done was a priority. Less “perks” than essentials that helped them not only accomplish today’s mission, but plan for the future and gain an edge.

My favorite quote, paraphrased, that illustrates my views on team-building comes from Bolman and Deal:

A leader’s job is to create conditions that promote authorship.

As a writer, being an author empowers me to create and share with others. If you feel safe, supported enough to be create, innovative as a team member, then I would consider this a success. With such a team of empowered creators, acts of collaborative authorship can transcend and transform organizations.


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Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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