S1E2: Discussing IT Leadership, Leadership Training, and Other Leadership Trends with Lou Russell

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This is a podcast episode titled, S1E2: Discussing IT Leadership, Leadership Training, and Other Leadership Trends with Lou Russell. The summary for this episode is: Host Angel Leon welcomes Lou Russell, Moser Consulting’s Managing Director of Learning, to talk about the challenges and learning opportunities that exist for IT Leadership. Their discussion covers a wide range of topics, including failing your way to success, no one being born a leader, and some of the demands and decisions those who aspire to lead will face. For example…letting go of the day-to-day programming or other hands-on IT work in order to have the time and focus to lead.
Stay out of the trenches
00:25 MIN
Customers don't want code
00:22 MIN
Influence your customers
00:19 MIN
Leadership as a buffet table
00:21 MIN
Live interaction with experienced professionals
00:29 MIN

ANNCR: ASCII Anything, a podcast presented by Moser Consulting. Join us every Wednesday to find out who from Moser's more than 200 resident experts we'll be talking to, and what they're focused on at the moment. Trends, security, setup. ASCII Anything, and we'll give you our best answers.

Angel Leon: Welcome to this week's edition of ASCII Anything, presented by Moser Consulting. I'm your host, Angel Leon, Moser's HR advisor, and in this week's episode, we'll be talking about leadership, more specifically about IT leadership. How does IT leadership differ from leadership in general? How can your business benefit from having good IT leadership? Those are some of the questions that we will be discussing today with our resident leadership expert, Lou Russell. We all know that leadership in general is key for successful organizations to thrive in any environment, let alone during a pandemic. Leadership among technology professionals is different than that of other departments throughout an organization and among other industries. There is, though, a corporate- wide cost in not developing leadership skills for these IT leaders. But before we get into all of that, it's time to introduce our guest, Lou Russell. She's currently Moser Consulting's Managing Practice Director of Learning, and as an executive consultant, speaker and author, she channels her passion by creating growth in companies through their people. Lou inspires greatness in leadership, projects, emotional intelligence and teams. She is the author of nine popular books on IT, HR and project management, including IT Leadership Alchemy, featuring practical, hands- on help. Lou blends her stories with practical techniques so you can easily solve complex problems. In her classes, you will definitely laugh, participate and be challenged. Most importantly to Lou, you will learn. If you'll allow me, I have five questions that I'd love to ask you to better grasp the topic of IT leadership. I think that our listeners will benefit from hearing your answers immensely and then better understand what IT leadership looks like. Then at the end, we can talk about how they could benefit from Moser's IT Leadership Bootcamp. Does that sound good to you?

Lou Russell: Yeah, that sounds perfect.

Angel Leon: All right, Lou. First question. How is IT leadership different than other functions' leadership?

Lou Russell: That's a really great question because I think leadership is leadership, right? You're either a leader or you're trying to be a leader or you're just not a leader. But I do think having worked with a lot of IT teams, like in our IT Leadership Bootcamp, there's a little bit of a difference there, because in an IT career, you will hit a crossroad eventually and you'll have to pick, do I want to stay in technology or do I want to become a leader or a manager, or senior manager, or even a CIO? Sometimes the people in the class they're like," I want to be a CIO," but when they find out what it is for real, they're like," Maybe I don't want to be a CIO." It's truly more of a financial role than a technical role. And so someone that's been really gifted in technology, that's really a tough path to go. That's what we talk about in the bootcamp. What are your skills? What are the things that make your heart sing? And nevermind what the rest of the world is telling you what to do.

Angel Leon: So I take it from what you're telling me... So if I was interested and I'm just starting in IT, but I want to make sure that I get that leadership from the ground up. So is this something that I would see, not just probably from my learning standpoint, from just being new, but also from others that might come in, maybe halfway through a career, or even those that are higher up?

Lou Russell: Right. Exactly. And I think we have that whole spectrum in the class usually. It's people who have just started in IT and also people that have been managers and things along the way. It's interesting because I think they learn a lot from each other. They both have preconceived notions that are not quite true, but I think it's most important for the entry- level people, the people that have just landed in IT or have been there for a couple of years, and help them to think through, with other people that have already had some of these thoughts, what do I really want to do? What is the thing that I'm really great at? I think it's really sad. A lot of times people just keep doing, especially in IT, they keep doing the promotion, with IT skills. And eventually they're so valuable with their IT skills, that it's pretty hard to go into management at that point. I've had a couple of people in the class that were clearly there because their boss made them come and they were very much fighting it. You know what I mean? They weren't being mean or anything like that, but they weren't contributing and they weren't talking to other people. And one of the stupid tricks we always do is you keep mixing them up in teams, so they've met everybody eventually anyway. And you wait. And you just wait and you just wait and you keep doing what you do. You keep provoking them and the other people will take care of that. And I know of two people who both became zealots at the end about leadership, just by everybody just kind of poking at them.

Angel Leon: And that's an interesting take, or part from them, because it's interesting to see that development from coming in first day and not wanting to be there, or just not thinking too much about leadership, but then how the program rolls on and how that turns on them because of not just the program itself, but also because of, to name it, peer pressure from their peers right there, taking the class.

Lou Russell: It's way more about the collaboration of the students that are in the class than me. I'm just pushing them at things. Do this exercise or do this exercise, or whatever. We've had, unfortunately or fortunately, we've been in Zoom windows for the last year. Before we were face- to- face at tables and moving tables and things like that, which does change things. So this one particular person just always had a frown, this giant frown on his face. And I kept going and going and going, and then ended up that he's like," Can I put five people in this class when the next one comes up?" And I'm like," Yeah. inaudible with that."

Angel Leon: That's great.

Lou Russell: But I've had at least two that were really struggling.

Angel Leon: And I guess collaboration is a big part of leadership. And you mentioned earlier that the collaboration of all those involved in the classroom pushed those people forward. So I think that's a good lesson to be had, that collaboration ultimately can then turn into something positive.

Lou Russell: Yeah. I think if you're a leader, at least in my role of training and development, you can't get mad. You don't get mad. You stay calm. Like what you would do as a good parent, you state what you want the behavior to be. And if it isn't, they have the consequences. But I don't even have consequences really. Yeah. It's very organic.

Angel Leon: That's very good comparing it to parenting. Moving on to question number two, what business benefit occurs when IT practitioners grow into IT leaders?

Lou Russell: Well, I like the idea of having mentors for the technical staff so they are learning from other people how to have collaborative relationships with customers. This grows the revenue of a business really quickly. But for some people in IT, it's sort of like they didn't get the memo. It can be really tempting for them to avoid difficult conversations with customers and spend way too much on the code. Way too much time in the thing that I think maybe they love the best, but the customers are going," Where are they?" So that's a thing. And if you're thinking about entering leadership, you have to remind yourself, stay out of the trenches. That's a choice you're making if you want to move up in your career.

Angel Leon: It's also good to know those trenches prior to getting into that leadership role, because I understand that one of the benefits of being a good leader is that if you have that prior knowledge of what your people are doing, then it's definitely way better for you to understand what they're working on, what they're going to do, and really help them also develop as leaders as well.

Lou Russell: And have some choices too. I mean, that's the thing, there's not just one path. It isn't, I'm an on IT path or I'm on a leadership path. It's just very much more complicated to that. One of our staff I've been talking to, or coaching a little bit, trying to figure out the same thing. Should I be going out of IT because I love IT, or what should I be doing here because I want to be promoted and I want to be in a leadership situation, but I don't want to lose my technology aspects that I like so much. So it's complicated, I think. It's a very difficult personal choice for most people.

Angel Leon: Right. That is definitely a difficult choice because a lot of people still like to roll their sleeves and continue working down in the trenches. But they also have that dream that thinking of, maybe I could be a good leader, maybe I could help my peers and just develop them as well. So that's a really interesting take on that. Next question, Lou. What is the cost to a business of not providing leadership training to its IT staff?

Lou Russell: Oh, that's a good one. I like that. The question is, the idea that once IT, you're in a closet and you never come out again. That's just so wrong. So, to me, if you have a business, you aren't going to be able to grow companies without leaders. There's no way. And eventually you can't stay flat forever. It's going to organically become different levels, whether you like it or not. And we have to remember, and I think this is true with IT leadership, IT people, not everyone, but some that are struggling with their career plans, customers don't want code. They could care less what the code looks like. What they really want is solutions. They want a solution. They don't want drama. They just want their problem to go away. They don't want to be lectured with technical terms that nobody remembers what they mean. They want to know what's happening in my project and why do I have to keep asking you? Why aren't you telling me that? And then finally, the other thing is, if everyone is coding, no one is influencing the customer. So eventually the customer will leave and even worse, the bad reputation of that business spreads like wildfire. And in our area here, in Indianapolis area, it doesn't take long for everybody to know who is playing straight and who is not. And they'll just go somewhere else.

Angel Leon: Right. That is a very important point. Just making sure that you have that leadership training for those IT staff, because as we were talking earlier, I mean, maybe they can grow into leadership in some other role as well. Not just necessarily IT right away, but they can continue helping and developing others and just making sure that the company continues to grow.

Lou Russell: Right. Exactly.

Angel Leon: All right. So next question. How do new approaches such as agile and design thinking impact leadership programs?

Lou Russell: Well, I'm really old, so I remember waterfall. That was my take in Indiana Bell in those days. We were doing basically waterfall programming and now everyone's like," Oh, you're doing waterfall," like you're doing something absolutely horrendously horrible. It makes me laugh. Because actually a lot of the stuff that we're doing is all smushed together. We're taking pieces from things. There's no golden methodology that everyone is... Some people have inaudible loyalties, but I think we need to get over ourselves. When I was a programmer, all we had was that, but this is a linear... It's so funny because even waterfall, it's a linear discussion and it's design, plan, manage, review, which is probably most people with any kind of intelligence would have set up those phases on their own if they were trying to build something, whether it was code or a house or whatever. Those are just pretty normal ways you would get something done. But since then we've found more that in the real work with customers in the agile space, the iteration is helping a lot. So instead of only having one chance at the solution, they're getting to iterate with a team, work as a team, not by themselves. And so that's the big thing with agile right now. I think that's a really awesome way of working, if that's the kind of stuff you're working on. There are certainly some places where you should just finish it and close it up and get it done. You don't need all that iteration. For example, we're building out some compliance training right now. We don't need to do agile with that. We just need to find it and put cartoon characters in it or whatever so someone will watch it. People learn from trying things out. People learn from each other. That is never going to change. That's the way it's always been. Design thinking is awesome. Agile's awesome. They're both examples of building solutions collaboratively in different ways. So we have more solutions coming in the future we're working on today, and everything is complex and variable and linear is falling away. But it is interesting because it's still there. The bottom of it is still define, plan, manage, and review. It's just like these people are playing with it this way. These people are playing with it this way. So we call it the methodology wars in the industry, and it's really dumb.

Angel Leon: So when talking about the methodology wars, what are the biggest difference that you see right now in the new agile and design thinking versus what we used to do five, 10 years ago?

Lou Russell: Yeah. That's interesting. So one thing that's happened recently with all of us is we've been working with a government account, and the government account, the leadership in that, it's a big contract. The leadership in that space is all about schedules and dates and timelines. And when will you have this done? And when will you have this done? And the folks that we have programming are agile- based. So they're like," We'll be done when we're done. We're iterating, we're doing this, we're doing that." So there's a culture war there. And so they have to come to the middle and figure out," Well, what is this going to look like? How can we do both sides?" And I think that will always be the case. It's not that you are loyal to a methodology or a process, but it's what will work with the people you have in a situation that you have.

Angel Leon: That's interesting. It's interesting how we still use the old system yet we rely so much on the new ones, and then we've got that clash of cultures all happening right in front of our eyes. Very interesting.

Lou Russell: Exactly.

Angel Leon: So last question, Lou. Why is it true that you cannot teach leadership?

Lou Russell: Well, you can only become a leader. No one else can teach you to be a leader. It sort of has to get in your DNA. And the people that get into leadership which they don't like, but they think they're going to make much more money, is usually not good. I mean, that's an example of the bad news of that. I thought that was kind of a mystical question too. That was kind of interesting. A friend of mine used to always say," It's a way of being," and that always used to make me mad. Like," What being, what are you talking about?" It just sounds so something. But everyone's a specific, unique individual and they all are working with other cool people. And we just have to find our place. I do believe that you can't teach leadership. You have to build your own leadership. A lot of that has to do with really screwing things up. So the more mistakes you make, the better leader you will be. Absolutely. Every day, you're going to find out something that you don't know how to do.

Angel Leon: I agree.

Lou Russell: Yeah. So I always tell everybody about the IT leadership being like a big buffet table, that everyone goes in there and finds what they need, but they're not all getting the same thing. And in the conversations that they have with each other, they grow more. So it isn't us. We're not doing it. We're just setting up the buffet basically.

Angel Leon: Right, I agree with you 100% on every thing you just said. I think leadership in general, I mean, we're leaders in every position that we're in. I'm an HR advisor, you're a practice director for our company. So each and every one of us leads in a certain way. So I think that leadership, I don't know that you can teach it. I don't necessarily agree with that, but I agree with what you say about, we can all be leaders in one certain way, as long as we're good and we're trying to do what's best, not just for ourselves, for those involved with us. So that's a really good statement.

Lou Russell: Well, it's funny. When I was at the grocery store this morning, they were ringing the bells. There was a lady out front, the Salvation Army ringing the bell, taking donations. I'm betting she's there because she wants to be there. To me, that's a leader. You know what I mean? She's leading right now. She doesn't think of herself as that, but that's what she's doing. She's leading.

Angel Leon: Yep. She is. I absolutely agree. She's a leader for the Salvation Army, definitely looking for those donations. And she does that because she's proud of the organization. So that makes her a leader. So I agree with that. So Lou, let me ask you a little bit about our IT Leadership Bootcamp. What can you tell us about it?

Lou Russell: Well, we usually do two a year. We're going to do three this year, I think, at least maybe four. It's usually IT people, like we said before, from baby IT people to people that have been there forever. The whole point is again, to make that buffet table. So we're bringing speakers coming in, like CIOs or people that have retired that have been in the industry for a long time. And the students love that, that they can ask those questions from people. And we do a lot of simulations and things like that. We do a lot of profile work, so we get them to see what their competencies are, what their motivators are and what their disk. So that's part of it too. So we're basically coming at it with a whole bunch of different ways that you can see yourself, is really what we're trying to do.

Angel Leon: Interesting. Interesting. And we can find out definitely more information about it in our Moser website. We will be putting the link in the description for this, so people can link on it through the description of this podcast. So that is amazing. Would you like to add anything else?

Lou Russell: I think I'm good. How about you? Would you like to add anything else?

Angel Leon: I am good. So we'd definitely like to thank you for being with us today. This has been a great episode. A lot of insight into IT leadership. I definitely recommend the IT Leadership Bootcamp with Moser. Thank you once again, Lou, for being with us. Thank you to the listeners for listening to us today. We hope to see you, or I guess, for you to hear us in the next episode of Moser ASCII Anything. Thank you very much. So long, everybody.

Lou Russell: Thanks everybody.


Host Angel Leon welcomes Lou Russell, Moser Consulting’s Managing Director of Learning, to talk about the challenges and learning opportunities that exist for IT Leadership. Their discussion covers a wide range of topics, including failing your way to success, no one being born a leader, and some of the demands and decisions those who aspire to lead will face. For example…letting go of the day-to-day programming or other hands-on IT work in order to have the time and focus to lead.

Today's Host

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Angel Leon

|Director of Personnel

Today's Guests

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Lou Russell

|Practice Director of Learning Services