Great managers make the difference…

Last week I went to an informal drinks party to celebrate the retirement of one of my business mentors – David Smith.

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I worked for David initially in the 80s, when he was an IT OPS manager and I was coming through the ranks as a rookie Helpdesk manager. David was the driving force behind most of my practical views on management, operations, organisational change and service management – and still is 30 years on. (that’s him above in the centre with me and Victoria Marr (Stuart) his PA from back in the day)…

David is an expert at Lean, Agile, Project Management, OCM, ITSM, H2H, DevOps, Customer Experience, SIAM and many other familiar concepts, although he might not recognise all of these headings, or be conversant in the current marketing lingo on these topics. Yet he has been practicing all of these things one way or another since I’ve known him.

Over the years I’ve worked with David in other situations and he joined my original consulting company (e2e) as a director for some years in the 90s. He has always been someone who love’s their work and I’m frankly amazed that he is hanging up his working boots – although I’m sure he’ll keep busy. I wish him and his wife Diane a long and happy retirement. At the party there were a few of us from the early days but also many from his most recent working project – all with the same sense of appreciation for him and his efforts.

So why am I telling you this and what has made David such an inspirational manager for me?

In short he ‘get’s it’ – he understands that success is about creating the right environment for people and building an organisation that supports them to deliver great service. From an early point I was impressed at the way he took an active interest in developing people that worked for him. He used the classic 6 motivational words of management (please, I’m sorry, thank you) regularly and constantly where due – and for that won the respect of those that worked for him.

 

He also understood from day one that successful IT is about people and business. He has always pitched a clear focus on working to the needs of the organisation that pays your salary. He would do a daily walk around the office and his 250 staff and randomly ask people ‘what do they do?’ – usually getting a bemused ‘eh, systems programmer..’ response. To this he’d reply ‘you sell insurance’ (we worked in a mutual Life assurance organisation).

The message was clear – we don’t ‘work in IT’, we deliver financial security to people – who pay our salary. This has always stuck with me as a real challenge in IT and I’ve never needed standards or frameworks to appreciate it – David brought it out in clear relief in the 80s. His focus was on getting the right result for the customer, and that was his starting point, not how ‘IT’ works.

As a manager David was also no pushover (putting it mildly…) – he was tough but fair, would make decisions and mostly just got on with doing the job rather than being swayed with new shiny concepts and ideas. He had scant time for sales pitches and smooth sales people, although he would always give them time and a chance to speak (‘you’ve got 30 seconds…’), before he demolished them. His negotiation skills – and eye for detail in commercial discussions – are legendary and saved many employers large sums of unnecessary spend.

So in short we have the perfect model for management – a people person, developing skills and succession, a business focus for IT and service management, plus commercial skills for contractual and supplier management. I feel very priviledged to have worked with David at an impressionable age and to have had these qualities imbibed into what I do – all that has stayed with me since. It’s no surprise that I call myself a ‘management consultant’ not simply an ITSM or service management bod.

For me the secret to success in IT and service management is all about management skills and capability – processes, tools and standards help to build knowledge and provide frameworks, but none of these are effective or successful without the right people driving, leading and enabling – defining and living the ‘culture’.

We need to think more about how to develop people and improve the quality of our managers, their focus, skills and performance. Good management requires a completely different skill set from just ‘doing’ and often this is missed. In many cases I still see companies promoting the wrong people into management positions, simply because they have been successful at an operational role and without enough attention to their development needs.

OF course it’s great when there is a good manager in place although things can change when they retire or move on. Ideally much of the things we cherish and strive for in IT and ITSM should become embedded as process and via good governance, although often this just doesn’t happen when the strong character leaves.

A really good manager/leader will develop the right culture and to build this into a sustainable and repeatable model – that’s my experience where I see excellent organisations that don’t just rely on one or two individuals. The culture can be defined and ‘lived’ by the current leadership and simultaneously imbued into those coming through as potential new managers – it’s a clear trait of excellent managers to cultivate and mentor staff to continue their legacy.

I have to say however that I really can’t think of too many organisations who have an enlightened culture without one or two very notable individual people. I think sometimes we try to avoid recognising the contribution of some great people and try to attribute success to process, structure and policy. These are important, but we should also celebrate our people and culture – we are humans not automatons. Management is about how we motivate and get the best out of our people and we should be open and positive about that.

The value of good managers is most easily seen when a poor manager is in post (this is still the main reason people leave organisations). This leads to low morale, poor performance, staff absence/sickness, demotivation, factionalism, silos, bullying, high staff turnover – all of which of course is toxic for staff and customers and none of which is the result of poor processes or using the wrong tools…

We need more David Smiths – we need to do more to develop and support people who have the right kind of skills and potential to improve our management skills – rather than expecting things to happen through standards and ‘best practice’. I also think that the new nirvana of collaborative flat structured organisations, where everyone is their own boss, needs to be further defined. We might be doing less work in future but people still need to be motivated, supported and managed – and this will always be the case.

There’s not enough appreciation that individuals do make a difference – sure we need to have consistency and processes for how to do things, but actually its people that deliver these and we need more practical people management to make this happen.

It’s all about people… and people need good managers.

Happy Retirement Dave – you will be missed..!

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