IT careers: Why relationships are everything

Former CIO, Dr Robina Chatham, explains why building relationships is the most important IT skill.

My career commenced within the shipbuilding industry. It was the early 1980s and I joined a shipyard along with nine other engineering graduates. I spent the first two years on the shop floor as a ‘fitter’s mate’, in order to complete my training to become a chartered engineer. During this time, I learned little about engineering, but a lot about people, industrial relations and shop-floor survival tactics.

Following my stint on the shop floor, I went into the planning department and quickly became involved with the very first roll-out of computers onto the shop floor.

I was appointed to manage two major projects: the first was a manufacturing control system that I affectionately named COMICS (computer-oriented manufacturing information and control system) and the second an access-control system, whereby entry to, or exit from, the shipyard could only be gained via a bank of 20 computer-controlled turnstiles.

At this point in my life and career, I was naïvely unaware of the potential human and social problems that we now know are a characteristic of any project that seeks to change long-established and cherished ways of working.

I was also unaware of the stages a computing project should go through, the development life cycle or the existence of development methodologies; I, therefore, operated purely on instinct, gut feeling and basic common sense.

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This article is taken from the book "30 Key questions that unlock management" by Dr Brian Sutton and Dr Robina Chatham.

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And yet, both projects were a huge success. I cannot claim they went in on time, to budget, or as specified, since there was no budget, plan, or detailed specification. The systems, however, worked: they fulfilled business imperatives, the workforce liked them and the unions were content. Over the period of time covered by these projects, I was promoted three times, my salary doubled and I became the youngest manager in the history of the shipyard.

As my career progressed, I learned how to manage projects and develop systems ‘properly’; it was at this point in my career that things started to go downhill. Don’t get me wrong, I never did a bad job, but I could never recapture my early successes. The question is why?

As I look back over this time, my analysis of the situation is as follows. As my career progressed, I had moved away from engineering and become a fully fledged member of the IT community and, in doing so, I had also moved to the finance sector where money was more plentiful and business was booming. I was sent on training courses; I learned about methodologies, process and procedures and project management. I watched my peers and bosses, learned from them and tried to emulate their behaviour. However, somehow along the way I forgot what came naturally to me – the people side, networking and building relationships!

During the early part of my career I had naturally (for me that is) focused on building relationships with people. I did this throughout my two-year stint on the shop floor. Later, when I talked to the people on the shop floor and to the unions, I was not viewed as an outsider.

I was one of them and trusted because we had a common experience and understood each other’s values. When I told them that the implementation of the IT systems wouldn’t threaten their jobs, but would ease some of the more mundane aspects, they believed me and willingly helped my projects happen.

During the middle years of my career, I learned to consider the time I had spent on relationship building as a luxury, rather than as a necessity. I, therefore, stopped doing it because I didn’t feel I had the time; I felt that I should be concentrating on ‘work’.

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Lunch breaks became a snatched sandwich, while catching up with my e-mails, rather than dining with, talking to and getting to know the people who would be impacted by my endeavours: my stakeholders and business peers.

I have now retrained as a psychologist and had a chance to reflect on where I went wrong; I understand how I ignored a natural, and oh, so important, talent of mine – that of relationship building. I have recently embarked on a major study of IT professionals who have progressed beyond the ranks of IT and made it to the position of CEO. Such individuals told me that they spent 50% of their time networking and relationship building, while in that top IT role. As one of the CEOs in my study so succinctly put it, ‘IT leadership is about getting the best out of people and not about building processes and procedures’.

If only I could have my time again, I would make sure that I never lost sight of the importance of relationships!

Dr Robina Chatam is former CIO, author, and founder of Robina Chatham Ltd.

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