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People, not processes – a personal lament

Professionals should never forget the art of networking and relationship-building as their career progresses

My career began in 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.

After my stint on the shop floor, I went into the planning department and quickly became involved with putting computers onto the shop floor for the first time.

I ended up project-managing two major projects. The first was a manufacturing control system which I named COMICS (Computer Oriented Manufacturing Information and Control System) and the second was 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 all the potential problems and pitfalls associated with such ground-breaking projects. I was also unaware of the stages a computing project should go through, the development life cycle and development methodologies; nor were there any IT text books to help or guide me.

I therefore operated purely on instinct, gut feel and basic common sense. And yet both projects were a huge success. I cannot claim they went in on time, to budget or as specified because there was no budget, plan or detailed specification. But the systems worked, they fulfilled business imperatives, the workforce liked them and the unions were content.

During that period, 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”. But 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?

My analysis of the situation is as follows. By then, I was a fully-fledged member of the IT community and had moved to the finance sector, where money was more plentiful. 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.

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However, I forgot what had come 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, they trusted me. When I told them IT would not 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 a luxury rather than a necessity. I therefore stopped doing it because I didn’t feel I had the time; I felt I should be concentrating on “work”.

Lunch breaks became a snatched sandwich while catching up with my emails rather than dining with, talking to and getting to know my user community and business peers.

I have now re-qualified as a psychologist and have reflected 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 CEO. Such individuals told me they spent 50% of their time networking and relationship-building while in that top IT role.

In hindsight, I would have handled those middle career years very differently. 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.

Robina Chatham specialises in management development and executive coaching and is a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management.

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