Training and Developing IT Leaders
How are you developing the developers you are leading?
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Here’s an edited transcript of my conversation with Heide Abelli, senior VP of Content Product Management at Skillsoft at their Perspectives 2019 user conference. Following the theme of their conference, we discussed where IT professionals should focus on improving their skills.
What would you like the development community to know about training and development?
The key roles in an IT organization are really around managers where they're leading others. It's not enough to have just a technical skill set. When you get into management, you're leading others in the organization. You have to develop behaviors and mindsets to help the organization to handle the challenges it faces in the context of a rapidly evolving, digital economy.
When we think about developing a coaching mindset in a manager, it’s key for those IT professionals to understand how to coach and develop the people that they're managing. Oftentimes, people who are in a highly technical role don't receive training on coaching and developing the people who report to them.
Being self-aware and emotionally intelligent are key. Great leaders are self-aware. They think about how their behavior, the words that they say, how they show up every day impacts their team. They are able to think about things from the other person's perspective.
Leadership development is evolving in the context of the digital economy, and we have to think and talk about mindsets today. Leading companies in the technology space are heavily focused on mindset development for their technical leaders.
We need technical leaders to embrace a diversity mindset. How do I make sure I put a priority on having diverse thinking in my team? How do I unlock that and extract the benefits of a collaborative mindset?
A lot of the work in organizations today happens across functionalities. We need to make sure technical individuals are collaborating effectively with the other parts of the organization like marketing, sales, and finance with a collaborative and innovative mindset to think creatively about what's next for the business using all of their technical insight.
When we think about an Agile mindset, we need people operating in an Agile way, technical leaders may be more familiar with how to embrace an Agile mindset. Agility and an agility mindset may actually be one that comes more naturally to technical people than others.
Today, we need people who can be resilient to change because change is happening all the time. You can't be somebody who is not resilient through the different phases of change.
We need leaders who are adaptable, who are not set in their ways. Often, these mindsets need to be developed in technical people who assume management and leadership functions within the technical part of the organization. They need to set the example for those that they lead.
It’s critical to have a program in place that provides the knowledge, reflection, and practice for these individuals. It's not just about having knowledge. These individuals need time to reflect and that requires a lot of introspection. They need the opportunity to practice new mindsets and behaviors with feedback from those they are leading.
How do you go about getting feedback?
I'm a huge believer in multi-rater surveys. It's similar to a 360 except you're not looking at your boss, it’s mostly peers. At the end of the day, what really matters most is what those people reporting to you are saying about how you're developing them, how you are coaching them, how you're showing up every day from an emotional intelligence perspective.
Are you listening while sitting in meetings? Are you knocking down ideas before they've even been surfaced? Are you creating psychological safety in the team? Do team members feel safe raising a challenge, sharing a wacky idea that might actually be really good? If the leader hasn't created a psychologically safe environment, their employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
Google talks a lot about psychological safety on their teams. They can't have leaders and managers knocking down ideas. It might be the next brilliant idea from a junior developer. They're afraid the junior developer won’t speak up because the manager thinks he has to have all the answers, is not creating a psychologically safe environment. Training people on the importance of empathy and listening is critical.
We need to hear from the people that you are leading every three months. I have a survey to measure ten key competencies and you should survey everyone you manage so they have an opportunity to provide feedback on whether or not you are getting better. I need this information because I need you to be a better coach.
Developers are leaving and it’s increasingly hard to replace them. They go to a competitor because they hate their manager. If there's any function in the organization that better be operating on all cylinders from a management leadership perspective, it better be the technical organization because those people are going to be really hard to replace.
That's why it's crazy for the IT function not to invest in managers and leaders. We need to help these people get really good, to serve and understand where the problem lies, and then address it through training, development, and assets that can help them practice and improve, and then assess again. This professional development also tells the manager’s direct reports we're on it, we want to help, we’re listening to you because we care about how you feel about how you're being managed in your work life.
How can the content that a company is providing to develop its employees affect culture?
If you want cultural change, it is those leaders and managers that will primarily be in the position to drive it for you, but it's got to happen at scale. You need all those managers and leaders rowing in the same direction whether it's around a diversity mindset, an innovation mindset, agility, change management, whatever you're trying to drive.
You have to enable at scale through your managers and leaders so they can model the desired behavior and cascade it down. That's how you get cultural change. But you need consistency in modeling all of that. What training and e-learning enable you to do is cost-effectively, at scale, reach everybody or reach enough people to be able to shift the freighter in the right direction. And so that's how you can have an impact on your organization.
What are the biggest failures you run into when you're working with a new client?
We live in a world in which there is more and more emphasis on collecting data, analyzing data, and drawing insights. We need to apply thinking to our leadership development programs and behavioral change. We need to collect the data against that. Get a survey, get all the data points on the leader from those who report to him and analyze it at a departmental level, a divisional level, and an organizational level. Draw more insights from the data we collect so we can understand where we need to improve and drive programs designed to do that.
Now it's possible to take data that's being collected in different areas and draw correlations. From our survey data, we see there are really big issues around the emotional intelligence of leaders. And in this department, they're really rated low on emotional intelligence. But when we look at the data in the HR system, we see we're actually paying those leaders more than leaders in other areas that are getting far higher scores. We need to connect the dots, correlate incentives, and how we're paying people based on how they're performing against things we think are key.
We are able to use data in a way we're never able to do before. So the HR function really has to become highly data-driven and more analytical in drawing out these insights and using them to continuously improve their practices. We have tools at our disposal now that enable us to improve in a way that we couldn't 10 years ago. We have to get to the point where we're collecting data because, without the data, you don't have the insights. We can't afford that.
Every company is charged with using data to make more informed businesses, so why not use it to make more informed business decisions about the people that are leading the company? Collect data on performance and let people get over it. Leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to the organization to understand whether managers are coaching the people that report to them.
With regard to AI/ML affecting the workforce, are you able to help employees feel more valuable to their companies with training and development?
Some jobs obviously are more vulnerable to AI than others. They're easy to automate. If it's easy to automate, if it's a very routine process that your associate is performing that can be decoded into algorithms, then the job may be more vulnerable.
So the benefit of having a personal learning cloud, which can be enabled your skills of content and tooling, is allowing you to develop on your own time at your own pace, to upskill yourself and to go in a different direction to find to develop those skill sets that may be necessary for a job that is less vulnerable to automation.
Where there are many innately human functions like creativity, like critical thinking, certain uniquely human skills that will certainly not be affected in three to five years. They will be far less vulnerable to AI and machine learning type solutions. There may be a percentage of the activity that shifts to AI, but then there'll be a pocket that remains and how do we still need to manage it?
How do we give people the skills where, you know, they can go to that next level?
We have all kinds of courses on how to develop your creative thinking skills, creativity skills, cognitive capabilities, and decision-making skills. I can give you a list of courses that can be really helpful to individuals who want to learn strategic thinking so you can perform at a level that is less vulnerable to AI.
Are you able to help employees figure out how to get beyond the box and solve bigger business value questions?
Yes, we have a ton of courses designed around helping people do that. One of the examples is the digital transformation collection. In these courses, which cover all the technologies, we show through course content, pragmatic examples of the application of all of this in the business context so people can connect the dots.
You have people on the business side that don't really understand the technology. They don't understand how technology might be applied, but they really understand the business. And then you have people on the technical side that understand what the technology can do, but they don't know how it might be useful in the business context.
One of the beautiful aspects of this collection is we will take a course on technology that’s chock full of examples. And we have it across the board, including IoT, AR, artificial intelligence, and chatbots. We cover all the technologies, but the courses are full of practical examples. We teach business people what technology does. We have the technical people here with all these examples of practical applications. The goal is to get these two people talking. If they both take the same course, we have shared terminology, shared understanding, and that sparks conversation. We teach the business and technical sides to communicate and collaborate.
Within that digital transformation collection, we're building a pathway called data-driven decision making. We are doing so because the supply side has all this capability, data, and BI tools. The problem is on the demand side. These folks don't know how to ask the right questions. They don't know how to leverage what we've created on the supply side. So this pathway helps people on the demand side become better at working with folks on the supply side, asking the right questions and understanding how to leverage what's been built up to solve practical business problems.
What is Skillsoft’s definition of digital transformation?
We have all of these new technologies available today enabling the creation of new business models, new customer experiences, and putting pressure on legacy analog business models. Unless organizations are able to transform themselves in a way that allows them to look at a product or service they are delivering against the backdrop of what is possible now with technology and what the consumer is expecting in this digital age. Unless they can transform to deliver on customer expectations, they'll be in trouble.
So when we say digital transformation, it's really about rethinking your business and understanding how your model of delivering a product or service could be disrupted by somebody that's coming in and thinking about it differently or leveraging technology to solve some tangible problem that has always existed for the customer in a new creative way, or improving the customer experience by leveraging technology. It's about figuring out how to solve practical problems for customers and using the technology that's available to do that.
You need to be able to shift and transform the culture and the mindsets in the organization along those lines. Some organizations don't have an experimentation mindset. In many early companies that's a real problem. People fear failure. They have not adopted the DevOps model to fail fast and iterate.
If you have an entire organization of managers and leaders who don't have an experimentation mindset, I put them all through training that helps them understand the importance of this helps them practice having an experimentation mindset where they reflect on their process.
Introspection, where you sit and think hard about why you might be afraid of failure, is invaluable. You think deeply about what might have contributed to your fear of failure. Have you always worked for organizations where if you “fail,” you would get fired? If so, it explains why it requires a lot of self-awareness and then checking yourself at key decision points. Should you be experimenting here? When resisting, recognizing what is happening and saying, “Nope, that's my fear better getting in the way again.” It's a function of training people through a lot of self-reflection, self-assessment, and practice.
That's how we change behavior. But it can be hard to do and those companies with strong cultures have the hardest time changing since it’s that strong culture that might have made them successful to begin with.
I have a great example. Harvard Business School taught that Jack Welch’s two decades of leadership at GE led to their success. Jack Welch was the quintessential Industrial Age leader driving from point A to point B, executing, reducing costs, taking time out of the process.
Today we ask, “How much innovation was there?” So GE is the example of the industrial age success story, but Google or Amazon might be the examples of success in the digital age. We look at those companies, and they have a different strategy around leadership development.
Leadership development is all around what I've been talking to you about having the right mindsets and embracing those them. So, GE will struggle mightily, because of its very strong culture that worked in an industrial age does not work in the digital age.
I always tell my students in management at Boston College, success has the seeds of its own failure. What made that company great is also what might make it fail.
Jeff Bezos says about Amazon, “Will Amazon be here in 50 years?” Maybe, but he doesn't think so. He said, the only way is to be customer-obsessed. And I agree with him. Stay focused on that customer and never lose sight of that customer. But even then, we might not be here.
Original transcript edited for clarity and brevity.
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