Some IT leaders revel in being ‘hands on,’ while others insist on remaining ‘hands off.’ Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues both positions completely miss the point. A good leader cheerfully does whatever needs to be done to get results.
Yes, I’ll be happy to go make you a coffee, if that’s what it takes to get the job done. No worries.
A couple of months back, one of my old squaddies called me up out of the blue and asked if I’d be willing to help out one of his clients. This fellow is a high-profile cyber security expert in the private sector these days, and he gets up to all sorts of interesting pursuits. When he rang me, he said that he had a very important client who needed a new team member so solve some long-term programmatic issues. He envisioned a cross between a security architect and a security ambassador – someone who could translate problems, plans, and programs into metaphors that the company’s top executives could confidently get behind. I told him that yes, I can certain do those things, and yes, I’d be happy to meet with his client to see if I could be of service to them.
Last month, I got the chance to speak with some representatives from my friend’s client on a late afternoon conference call. After we’d all introduced ourselves, I started asking pointed questions about the nature of the role as the client envisioned it. The senior-most client rep mentioned that they wanted a project management facilitator; someone liaising between application-focused project teams and central network operations. I found it interesting that the client-side fellow’s vision was markedly different from what I’d been pitched initially. Not that it mattered especially. Curious, I asked the senior rep if he could clarify his expectations. ‘What,’ I asked ‘does a typical day on the job look like for this facilitator?’
The fellow chuckled and said ‘Well, first thing … you’ll be bringing Bob his coffee!’ Everyone on the call laughed. It was obvious that the gentleman was trying to figure out how to articulate what he wanted to say, and needed the joke to buy some time while he got his words sorted. Made perfect sense to me. I recognized that I’d caught him off guard, and replied ‘I can certainlydo that. What else?’
At the end of the call, the coffee-joke fellow interrupted our goodbyes specifically to apologize for the joke he’d made earlier. He seemed quite earnest, and even a bit embarrassed, as if he’d said something unforgivably condescending. I assured him that I’d taken no offense at all, and quipped that I also didn’t mind fetching the coffee if that’s what it takes to help drive the business. In truth, I really don’t mind at all. It’s a non-issue.
For nearly a decade, I was the first one to arrive at my office building every morning. Mine was the first car in the car park. I’d unlock the front doors and turn on all the lights in the common areas. When I unlocked the main IT department office, I’d flip on the lights, power up the coffee maker, and make sure that any bagged trash left over from the night before was by the door so that I could haul it downstairs to the skip before everyone else got in. These were things that needed to be done every day. Since I was the first employee on the scene, so I took care of them. It didn’t matter that I had senior managers reporting to me that would have felt such custodial work to be beneath their dignity; the work needed to be done. That’s all that mattered.
Along those lines, I bought a Keurig coffee maker for our office back before those machines got popular. Everyone on our floor loved the flexibility of being able to choose his or her own beverage flavour and strength. Unfortunately, our local water supply tasted like cat urine. To mitigate the problem, I made it departmental policy that we’d only use purified water in our brewer. We couldn’t legally use official funds to buy water or coffee, and I didn’t want the headache of running a formal accountancy program for a ‘coffee fund’, so I simply brought in all of the office’s fresh water myself. I’d carry two gallons to work from home at the start of every week, and I’d haul off the empty jugs at the end of the day. I tried to keep four gallons in the canteen cupboard at all times; any time that our supply would run low, I’d go down to the nearest grocers and buy more. No one asked where the clean water was coming from, and I didn’t talk about it. It needed to be done, so I took care of it. 
An office only runs well when everyone in the office does his or her part to contribute to the team’s collective success. Most business school textbooks will tell you that this is why you have to clearly define every employee’s role and then properly incentivize each and every worker to meet their individual objectives. I don’t dispute that advice; I just believe that it falls short of the mark, especially for a high-performance team. I submit that it’s not enough for each person to deliver on their individual roles; they also have to step up and take care of any unmet need that they encounter. Role, rank, authority, position, and title are irrelevant when it comes to filling in the team’s gaps.
This is particularly true in the tech sector. We have so many arcane areas of specialisation that no single expert can ever truly be all things to all systems. That’s why responsible IT departments strive to hire as wide a range of expertise as possible. You need at least one specialist in every system deployed in the business so that there’s always someone to fix what’s broken. You also need to cross train darned near everyone to support everyone else, otherwise the solo experts would never be allowed to go on holiday.
More the point, there can be no refusals to work when a major system shorts out. IT is a critical business enabler; when our kit fails, it means that some part (or all!) of the business can’t function. Therefore, the IT team’s top objective is to get whatever’s broken fixed, and to do it as quickly as possible. Rank has no bearing on the effort. When a server loses its mind and deletes a bunch of critical data, you put all of your resources behind the most qualified administrator who’s qualified to fix the problem. You don’t survey the room and assign the repair task to whomever has the most political power, or graduated from the best university, or looks best in a swimsuit. When the fans stop spinning, all the titles become meaningless – all that matters to the team is what you can contribute to solving the problem at hand, ego be damned.
I used to encounter this quite often in our IT department during systems upgrades and systems failures. A critical bit would stop working, and it became an all-hands-on-deck emergency. When our SAN stopped talking to our VM hosts, I didn’t try to insinuate myself into the command-line troubleshooting. Yes, I’d helped to design the solution. I’d approved the purchase of all the equipment. I’d taken classes on SAN configuration and management, and I’d helped to physically wire in the fibre channel switch when the kit was shiny and new. I wasn’t, however, qualified to drive the repair effort myself.
That being said, I had a BOFH, two infrastructure techs, and a junior sysadmin on hand – lads and lasses that were much better qualified than I was to perform switch surgery. So, instead of fighting with the crew for equal command line time, I drove downtown and bought the entire office a take-away lunch spread. The boffins concentrated on resurrecting the bad switch, and emerged hours later to find a hot lunch was waiting for them. I knew several department heads who were horrified that I’d ‘abdicated my role’ as director to go perform menial food service work. They were all wrong: I never abdicated my authority. I was always in charge. I wasn’t, however, trying to prove anything. I went to great lengths to hire, develop, and retain brilliant people. They knew more about the art and science of LUN masking than I ever will, so I empowered them to have at it. I took care of the back-end sustainment effort so that no one else had to. Done and done.
To be sure, my approach has had its critics. I got bitched out more than once for jumping into the fray and performing manual labour alongside my people. One executive in particular scolded me for ‘undermining’ management’s ‘side’ by refusing to ‘remain aloof from base labour’. I politely thanked the executive for his advice and went right back to work alongside my people. 
There simply isn’t any room, I submit, for excessive ego in the data centre. Your bloody job as an enterprise technology professional is to keep the business’s machinery running. Anything that interferes with that quasi-sacred pursuit is inappropriate. Therefore, any refusal to deal with a necessary task because of petty reputation concerns is (I think) a betrayal of the rest of the team.
I have decades of experience as an IT person. I have degrees and certifications. I’ve programmed routers, configured servers, fixed computers, designed data centres, and solved God-only-knows-how-many systems malfunctions. None of that matters if the skill I bring to the table is inadequate for the specific task at hand. The lad or lass who can fix the problem is the one thatmust be empowered to do so.
More the point, I’m not too proud to load the lorries, sweep out the warehouse, or make the coffee. If no one else is doing what needs to be done, and I’m available to sort it, I’ll sort it. I’ll cheerfully do my part to ensure that the entire team succeeds. That’s my basic performance standard for myself, and it’s also what I expect from all of my team members: we serve the line, not ourselves.
 Some of the more conscientious coffee drinkers would help out as well from time to time. They didn’t need to be told to do it. They simply recognized the need and quietly took action. My kind of folks.
 I’ve written bout this particular elitist, abusive, jack-wagon of an executive before.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.