The IT directors' manifesto

The key to a good IT director is leadership skills says David Taylor. Julia Vowler agrees

The key to a good IT director is leadership skills says David Taylor. Julia Vowler agrees

IT directors of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your chains! might well be the rallying cry of David Taylor's call to arms to his profession, expressed in the newly published distillation of his weekly columns in this very organ.

But what are the chains weighing down the noble breed of IT directors? Taylor is unflinching. Diffidence, self-doubt and a kind of beaten-into-the-ground apathy. Sometimes a snivelling trace of whingeing cowardice is detectable, and overall, an aura of bleak despair.

But there is really no reason at all for the profession of IT directorship to be so immersed in despair. Now, more than ever, argues Taylor, their time has come.

Whatever the dotcom roller-coaster does to the world's stockmarkets, the e-generation has arrived, ushering in the next era of the world's economy. And whether or not it will be owned by the jumped-up dotcoms, or reclaimed by resurgent old-economy giants, it will be driven by IT. And that means by IT directors.

But if they want to be there - indeed, if they want to be anywhere except on the scrap-heap, for IT departments themselves will wither away in the all-too-foreseeable future - Taylor urges that they must embrace three simple words.

"Leadership, leadership, leadership - as opposed to management," he says.

It's a quality that can be seen to sit unhappily on the shoulders of the heads-down, get-on-with-it, hygiene-oriented ex-techies who now happen to run the corporate IT shop. Leadership is supposed to be some kind of star-quality, touched-by-the-gods, visionary egomania.

Not so. "Leaders are not born, they are made," insists Taylor. It could be you.

"Everyone can make a dramatic change to themselves," he says.

By changing yourself you do what has to be done to become a leader - you change other people's perception of you.

"Success depends on what other people think about you," reminds Taylor.

And what they think about you, "can be managed and controlled".

To change what they think of you, "change your behaviour - show visibility, charisma, stand by your values. You need to think, act and walk like a business person. It's war out there. Be a warrior."

If that sounds a tad ambitious you don't have to do it all at once. Just start the process - tomorrow or today.

"Do something different," says Taylor. "If you do what you've always done you'll get what you've always got."

Don't flagellate yourself after industry best practice, trying to prove you're as good as the best.

"Best practice just makes you as good as everyone else. You have to get ahead of the game," reminds Taylor. "Best practice is doing whatever works for you."

If you don't know what works best, experiment. Do something different. If it works, good. If not, try something else.

"You need a culture of action," says Taylor.

A culture of ideas is good too. Try launching some stalking horses to see what comes back from them.

"I used to believe that there were no answers to the problems in the IT department, like total cost of ownership, skills retention and business alignment - I genuinely used to think there were no answers," says Taylor.

Above all, don't sit around and moan, however justifiably down you feel.

"IT directors can be doing a fantastic job, yet they still often get battered," says Taylor.

Stop worrying so much about the technical issues.

"A chief information officer doesn't have to understand anything about technology - his single goal is to get the best out of people and get their organisation into the new business world. About 99% of the job is about your visibility and your leadership and listening to people," he insists.

If you don't take leadership of IT in this make-or-break e-generation, someone else will. "You've no automatic right to it - you have to earn it," warns Taylor.

Do's and don'ts

  • Do lead. Don't manage.

  • Do know your staff and listen to them

  • Do know and talk to the corporate power players

  • Don't worry about technology. Appoint a chief technical officer

  • Do something different. Anything different. That way you find out what works and what doesn't

  • Do own e-business. If someone else owns it you might as well go home

  • Do be sceptical of management fads such as balanced scorecards, service level agreements and competency-based training

  • Don't despair!

    Four things you can do tomorrow

  • Tear down your office. Open yourself up to the world, the business and your staff

  • If you have under a hundred staff, know their first names and listen to each of them once a month

  • Prioritise your mission-critical IT projects and take them to the chief executive. If he rejects your priorities, tell him to prioritise them himself

  • Seek out your company's 20 top power players, the hidden "account managers", and talk to them. If you've been in the job longer than a month and don't know who they are yet, resign

  • Inside Track, a collection of David Taylor's columns for Computer Weekly, is out now published in the Computer Weekly Professional Series

  • Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)