An inspired approach

An inspired approach

Motivating employees is never easy but it is fundamental to a chief information officer's role. James Thompson persuades some leading IT directors to tell him how it is done.

The life of a top football manager is a precarious one. A couple of months without a win and the manager can often pay with his head. Typically when discussing a manager's demise, post-mortems conclude: 'He'd lost the dressing room'; 'the players had stopped playing for him'; or 'he was unable to motivate the team'.

Fortunately, most corporations are not as harsh on managers who fail to motivate employees. But any IT chief who believes a team's motivation is not their direct responsibility does need to wake up.

"The role of a CIO in motivating employees is absolutely fundamental," says Sinclair Stockman, president of technology and operations at communications giant BT Group. "If you cannot do this, then you should not be in the job." The ability of a leader to motivate people comes down to a combination of the person's personality, communication skills and the techniques and incentives they use.

Inspiring staff

Creating an environment where employees are recognised, given responsibility and the opportunity to contribute ideas is vital.

Less easy to define is the impact of salary, bonuses, job titles and training. The problem is IT has never placed huge importance on the ability of senior management to inspire employees. David Taylor, president of Britain's association of IT directors, NCC-Certus, says that many IT directors are promoted to the position based on their technical ability - not their communication skills.

He reckons IT directors focus too much on the issues of project management methodologies, bridging the divide between business and IT and searching for the 'next big' new technology - and not enough on unleashing the talent of their employees.

"Nothing has changed in 15 years. IT is still facing the same issues," says Taylor. "The next big thing is people. They are the only assets."

Of course, some IT directors are fully aware of their responsibilities to inspire staff. Robin Barrett, senior vice president of technologies at American Express, says the single biggest lesson he has learned about motivation is that as a technology leader you are "always on stage".

Top-down culture

"The culture is set by the person at the top. Like any leader, the CIO is the person who is visible: Their body language; how they enthuse or do not; how they treat bad news or learn from their mistakes is vital."

"What a leader says, whether it is at a company 'town hall' meeting or a cocktail party, is always important. Throwaway or cynical comments can do a lot of damage," says Barrett. Highlighting this point, when he recently announced his retirement, numerous colleagues sent Barrett email referring to advice he had given them. "One said: 'I just wanted to tell you how much your comment six years about getting a good work-life balance changed my life'," he says.

Recognising the contribution of employees - either publicly or privately - is one sure way of pushing their motivation buttons. "I haven't found many people who do not like being recognised publicly," says Stockman.

Ben Booth, IT director at market research company MORI, says: "As an IT director, one of the things you can do is tell the board about the good work your team is doing. IT people are not naturally good communicators. And they are not very good at marketing themselves and selling their successes. Often the only time IT people get noticed is when things go wrong and they are running around like headless chickens."

IT needs to celebrate success, says Stockman. "Take the team for a drink of champagne. This is something we do at BT, although not very often as champagne is expensive. Creating memories is important because that builds commitment".

Neil Prevett, director of IT and communications at UK law firm Lester Aldridge, says IT chiefs must be careful not to take the plaudits for someone else's work.

"If you give people responsibility for a project, it is important that they get the glory at the end of it. Often it is the manager who gets the credit."

Questionable motivators

Recognition of employees is vital, but it must match their actual performance.

Brian Jones, global chief information officer at drinks and restaurant company Allied Domecq, says: "One of the biggest demotivators is good people seeing bad people getting rewarded the same as them. I certainly do not believe we should have equality of recognition."

He speaks from personal experience. "I have been in organisations where I have been a high performer and have had low performance reward.

"In contrast, I have been in teams, where I felt I was in the wrong role and I did not contribute as much as other people, and was over-rewarded. Neither of these situations is comfortable. One is a source of resentment and one is a source of embarrassment," says Jones.

Allied Domecq has two performance reviews for staff per year. "This drives salary, bonuses and ultimately promotion prospects," says Jones.

Stockman says: "Being fairly paid and recognised is vital. If you short-change people, they will short-change you."

The power of money alone to motivate people is questionable. American Express' Barrett says: "Quite frankly, for IT people who are paid a professional level wage, then I actually do not think money is a big factor. You can pay someone 50 per cent over the going rate and they will still not like their job."

In his discussions with colleagues and American Express' employee surveys, over the years Barrett has never found money to be a major motivator for staff.

The name game

Similarly, the importance of job titles is hard to measure. Paul Kay, group IT services manager at tea specialist The Tetley Group, says: "It would be a lie to say job titles do not motivate people. If someone has the title of gopher then they will be aware of it."

To keep things simple, Tetley has given team members just two job titles: IT consultant or IT analyst.

Some IT directors, though, feel job titles have a limited impact. Prevett says: "Job titles do help, but it depends on the person. I think it is more important for young people who want to prove themselves. If someone has the same title after two years, then they might feel that they have not moved on."

A far more potent motivator is regular training of employees. Booth says: "If people are trained they will see that the company is investing in them."

Training is important because the nature of IT means staff need to keep up-to-date with it, says Booth. At MORI, most technical people get between five and 10 days training per year. Of course, some companies shun training for fear employees will take the skills elsewhere.

Booth says: "The idea that if you train and invest in people then they will leave is Stone Age thinking. It is a disgraceful management view of training."

Matching roles

One way Allied Domecq is looking to motivate employees is by matching their roles to their talent. "What we have tended to do is look at employees' skill sets on a collective basis, but we are now trying to do this with individuals. So if someone has a talent for object-oriented development, we should not keep them on legacy systems. I want to do this down to the absolute lowest level of skills," says Jones.

To this end, Allied Domecq uses a combination of human resources competency tests, previous delivery and gut feel, says Jones. Gut instinct is important because few companies seem to give IT directors training in how to motivate staff. Jones, for example, says he has received very little motivational training in his career. "You do what seems best, having worked with really good motivators you get a feel for it."

Motivating yourself

Whatever technique they use, IT directors need to realise how their own enthusiasm affects those around them.

Quite simply, if they are not motivated to get out of bed in the morning, their own employees are unlikely to be.

When asked what motivates him, Barrett says people and place play big part in his motivation. "It comes down to enjoying what I am doing and being able to trust the people I work with. These environmental factors are the things that automatically psyche you up without having to try."

See the cio website for more articles on motivating staff.


How the culture of the department is affected by the IT director's behaviour.

Why pay and titles may not motivate employees.

What people issues chief information officers need to focus on.

Motivational project management

Gaining the trust of employees is vital if IT directors are to motivate employees to take risks, which the most effective - and innovative - IT work often requires.

When Sinclair Stockman, BT Group's president of technology and operations, was asked at a recent conference how he inspired employees, he said: "When you ask people to do difficult things, the job of a CIO is to provide them with the cover. If you can convince them to take risks then they will go over the top for you - if they make a mistake it is your responsibility for taking them over."

Robin Barrett, senior vice president of technologies at credit card company American Express, agrees: "It is about the assurance that if they fail they will not be lined up against the wall and shot. You have to create a culture that is not a fear culture - people must not be afraid to take risks."

One way for IT directors to motivate employees and gain their trust is to explain what is expected of them at the start of a project.

Ben Booth, IT director at market research specialist MORI, says: "No matter how challenging a new idea may be to your staff, it is better to involve them from day one. Get their buy-in and ownership and get them to modify it."

But David Taylor, president of the Association of IT Directors, NCC-Certus, and author of The Naked Leader, believes IT directors need to go further and turn the traditional hierarchy of project management upside down. Once they have chosen the best six or seven people for a project, based on their strengths, the IT director needs to report to the team - instead of the team reporting to them.

So when they meet up for progress reports, the IT director asks them what they can do to help or move things along. In this way, the employees are motivated by the responsibility of managing the project.

What currently happens with some projects is that managers get bogged down with an over-emphasis on project management. His advice is blunt: "Reduce the amount of project management itself."

He says a rigid adherence to methodologies - such as Projects in Controlled Environments 2 (Prince 2), a structured method for project management - is counter-productive.

"Prince 2 is a waste of time. We do not need it," says Taylor.

In general, Taylor's biggest tip for IT directors looking to motivate their team is to ask them the question: 'What is the one thing you would like IT to do differently?'

Booth says: "As an IT director, you have a helicopter view of the organisation. You need to have an idea of where you want to go, but you might not always know how to get there."

Stockman agrees. "If you are the type of person who thinks you should be telling people what to do, then you are dead in the water."

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

Join the newsletter!


Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments