​Management tips: How to build a happy and productive team

CIO Strategies: Building an effective and engaged team is one of the biggest challenges for any managers. Here's how.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

Ensuring a mix of personalities is just one way to build a successful team.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Any leader is only as good as their team, so IT chiefs need to make sure they are dedicating time and resources to building great in-house capability. What are the best ways to build a happy and productive IT team? ZDNet finds best practice tips from four experts.

1. Encourage people to be provocative

Scope CDO Mark Foulsham says there is no substitute for capability and experience. He advises other executives to employ people who are experts in their field. "Go for strong people and get a nice blend of personalities," says Foulsham, who says business leaders benefit from having people in their departments who are prepared to speak up.

"I'm always a big believer in having people around who can challenge me," he says. "I like people who are provocative and who are not like me. I like diversity. A rich team is one that provides you with a 360-degree view, rather than drawing on five people who all agree and then realise later that they've missed a trick."

Foulsham encourages his C-suite peers to make people feel empowered and to give trusted deputies the opportunity to make decisions that add value to the business. "I like giving rights to veto," he says.

"If my head of security isn't happy, for example, he can veto my decision-making. If one of my trusted lieutenants isn't happy, then I won't overrule their opinion. We won't go live on something, even if the business is pushing, if my team believes the risk is too high. The cost of getting something wrong is much more expensive than the cost of delaying."

Foulsham also advises executives to focus on the continual development of their teams. "The people you have now might not be the right people for the business in two or three years' time," he says. "You have to be open and honest about that need for change."

2. Give workers strong direction

Mark Settle, CIO at Okta, has held seven IT leadership positions in a variety of sectors, including roles at Visa and Corporate Express. He has witnessed various types of management style. Settle believes the best way to build a team is through frequent but focused interaction.

"It's easy to talk about aspirations but, as a leader, you have to come down from the mountain and find ways to personalise those goals. If you don't make the connection, people on the ground will think that you don't understand the day-to-day complexity of their roles," he says.

"In too many cases, the leader just sets a general path or direction. People are left to their own devices and just get on with the thing that's easiest for them to do. The IT staff is often begging for management direction -- they want to know what the boss really wants them to do this week."

Settle believes too many leaders still underuse Agile-type principles in a business management context. He refers to specific techniques, such as shorter meetings, graphical portrayals of timelines and dependencies, and the use of collaborative tools.

"Most people don't understand the implications of their activities on the work of others," he says. "It's so much more powerful if you can look around a table and point out how great it would be if certain goals could be reached by people working together. That's a much better way of working than setting a management objective from on high."

3. Find ways to inspire creativity

It would be easy to conclude that CIOs need to polish up their team-building skills, yet there is also reason for confidence. "They're doing a lot of things right," says CIO consultant Andrew Abboud. "Digital hype has helped move technology near the top of the business agenda. IT leaders should use this opportunity to lift their teams up."

Abboud says great CIOs adopt a mindset that understands how the world is changing and they look to lead the debate about digital transformation. This debate needs to take place at two key levels -- in the C-suite and, crucially, within the IT department.

"There's no excuses here -- this is your domain, " says Abboud. "If you can't influence the people around you, then you have no chance." He says IT leaders must recognise that styles of management continue to evolve. Command and control no longer works and CIOs must find new ways to inspire their teams.

"I'm a big fan of agile principles," he says, echoing Settle's sentiments. "Engage your people, trust them and break down the targets your organisation faces. Insist on rapid iteration, failing fast and learning from experiences. What you will create for your team is a much more satisfying way of working."

4. Use a broad range of tactics

Interim CIO Christian McMahon, who is managing director at transformation specialist three25, says executives who put their faith in talent are likely to be rewarded. McMahon refers to a situation where he championed someone who worked in the post room of a global consultancy and who had been rejected for other client-facing roles. After performing an appraisal, McMahon knew he had a lot to offer.

"I championed his application to become an analyst and he is now a seasoned and industry-recognised practice leader, with many high-performing teams below him," he says. "The success of this individual is down to his talent. But the story also highlights the power of employee engagement. Executives must listen to people and then be prepared to re-tune roles, both for the benefit of the individual and for the entire organisation."

McMahon says tactics that can help refresh skills are crucial now as companies are involved in a constant fight for the brightest technology talent.

"Mentoring is a very healthy and structured way of building knowledge and empowering staff across the organisation," he says. "I currently mentor individuals in many start-ups across the globe in a range of sectors. I've always found mentoring to be a rewarding, engaging, fun and rich learning experience, both for me and the people I work with."

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