Management Tips Inspired By A Gulf War Leader

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A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear General Norman Schwarzkopf speak at an event. He was the Commander-in-Chief of the US Central command and led the military in the Gulf War. He offered two pieces of advice to all aspiring leaders. When you’re in charge, lead. And do what’s right. But how does that translate for today’s IT leaders?

The life of today's IT leader is far more complex than ever before. Almost every assumption of the first two major eras of computing - mainframe and client/server - have been turned around over the last decade or so.

When I started in IT, the rule was one box per application. Then it became one processor per application and pretty soon it was one virtual server per application. Then we wondered why we even have servers when we can use infrastructure providers like Amazon, Microsoft and others.

End-points have diverged from the IT-supplied computer to greater user choice and now BYOD.

My IT career started at the tail of the mainframe era - my first corporate employer was a major IBM AS/400 user and we moved to PCs on all the desks. Since then I worked and managed several different IT functions. Here's what I learned.

#1 Be decisive, but always consult

When I first started as a manager the temptation was to make decisions and be decisive. But I quickly worked out that unless I took people through my decision making process and listened to their concerns I would hit opposition and roadblocks.

Consulting doesn't mean compromising and agreeing with everyone. But it does mean letting people people know you have considered their view and, if you can't accomodate them, letting them know why.

#2 Plan for change

There are fewer things that are more satisfying professionally than successfully delivering on a major project. But the end of a project is just a point in time before the next thing comes along.

The last end-point hardware deployment I was involved was at a school. This was about five years ago and we had to decide between a laptop for every student, a mix of laptops and netbooks, iPads or some other tablet, or BYOD.

At the time, the way government funding worked we had a few limitations and there was great uncertainty. So I prepared two plans.

One was an infrastructure plan that was as completely agnostic of end-points as possible. That way, if the tide changed and the end-point platforms we chose didn't work out, we could pivot without having to start over with deployment systems, software distribution and our network.

The second part was presenting all the options to management and staff. That ensured they understood the journey as well as the destination.

By the way, we ended up with a laptop/iPad mix but the school is now on the BYOD road.

#3 Know the difference between operations and strategy

I was always amazed at the number of people I worked with who saw next month's work plan as strategic.

I've always worked on three planning horizons: two years or longer, three to six months, and the next month.

I limited my input into the daily/weekly activity planning my staff did as I trusted them to do their jobs professionally.

In general terms, the strategy didn't change without the input of the rest of the organsation's management team or board. Tactical plans were changed with consultation with the management team and operational plans were managed without a lot of outside consultation unless an activity was going to affect business operations.

#4 No surprises

The one thing I drummed in hard with my teams was "no surprises". If something went wrong I wanted to be the first to know. That way, I could shield them from the rest of the business while issues were resolved.

It also meant the odds of walking into a tricky situation in a management meeting were reduced.

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