Why I Left Corporate IT

Well, the easy answer would be to say that my position was eliminated (i.e. I was laid off), and I never looked back.  But the reality is, I stayed around corporate IT for a few years after that.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began getting more involved in the business-side of the business, and less involved with traditional IT.  I worked with operations, engineering, support, and most notably, sales.

The transition wasn’t easy and many of my IT friends wonder what I’m doing.  I’ve even had people say “you are a hard guy to figure out”.  Yeah, I guess I am.

The problem I see with most traditional IT shops (but not all of the individuals, this is an over-generalization), is that most of them look at all problems through their particular lens.  For example, if you are a BI guy, then the solution to every problem is a report or dashboard.  If you are a C# developer, then everything can be solved with some code.  If you are a Unified Communications Engineer, then every problem can be solved with better communication tools.

This isn’t a new phenomenon.  20 years ago, Cobol programmers and DB2 DBAs looked at the world through their own lenses as well.  You see, if the only tool in your bag is a hammer, the solution to every problem looks like a nail.

I was fortunate enough in my early career to learn the business side of the equation. A leader I worked with taught me that IT exists to serve the business, not the other way around.  Once I discovered that, my perspective on business and technology changed forever.

Now when I see a business problem (or opportunity), I approach it with an open mind.  I love finding ways to apply technology to solve the issue.  But I’m not stuck on one approach or one technology.  If IT would learn to do that, I believe they would be much more relevant in businesses today.  And maybe they wouldn’t think I was so strange!!  What do you think?

Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge

I saw this little plaque in a store in Washington DC a while ago.  It said “Imagination is More Important Than Knowledge”.  I took a picture of it with my phone, but sadly that went swimming in the gulf a while back (another story).  But the quote stayed with me.

We live in a “pro-knowledge” society.  We emphasize knowledge.  We want our kids to go to college.  And not just any college, we want them to go to the best school possible.  And it doesn’t stop there.  We emphasize learning on our jobs and send our employees to a variety of technical and business classes.  All in part of infusing them with “knowledge”.

On the other hand, we often stifle creativity.  We force kids to master standardized tests.  We remove or reduce arts from education.  We take the creative air out of so many things that we do.

Now this may sound like some wacky, left-wing. touchy-feely liberal thinking.  But those of you that know me know that I am far from that.  As I’ve spent the past few years outside of traditional corporate bureaucracy and worked in a small business, I’ve grown to understand the overwhelming power of creativity.

Whether it is coming up with a creative solution to inexpensively resolve a network problem, deal with an employee or resource challenge, or invent the next big thing that will transform your business, creativity is key.

Steve Jobs didn’t create the iPhone and the iPad because of “knowledge”.  He, and every other innovator of our day took their knowledge and took it to an entirely different level because of creativity.

What a difference a year makes

Last year at this time I was at the beginning of a new stage of my career.  After an unexpected layoff and the first time not being employeed in nearly a quarter-century, I found myself in an unfamiliar place. 

I had spent my entire career working in IT shops of large corporations.  Three Fortune 500 companies had been my place of employment over 24 years.  Now I found myself in a company that was smaller than the departments I had been in.  Everything about this job was different.  The type of work, the type of company, the type of boss, the type of people, the type of office…. you name it, it was new to me.

I decided that I was going to go into it full bore, roll the dice, and just see what happened.  What I found was a job that has given me more fulfilment, more fun, and more excitement than anything I experienced in the corporate world. 

What has made this so much fun?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • The ability to trace my actions straight to the bottom line of the company.
  • The ability to make decisions without multiple levels of review, oversight and second-guessing.
  • The ability to get out of the box and be creative, harnassing the entrepreneur in each of us.
  • The ability to step out of your comfort zone and lead in various capacities (my role has expanded beyond IT into almost every aspect of the business).

Bottom line, I believe the fundamental thing that has made this job enjoyable is the ability to make a difference!  I’ve heard before that the number one thing employees want from their employers is appreciation.  No greater apprecation can be found than to believe you make a difference in an organization.

My encouragement for anyone going through an unexpected job change is to keep your eyes open.  You never know where your next opportunity will come from.  And no matter how different it may feel to you, it may end up leading to the most fun you’ve had (on the job) in a long time!   Good luck and God Bless!

Real leaders don’t take the easy way out

If you know me at all, you probably know that I am an avid supporter of Boy Scouts.  I’ve been part of the scouting movement almost my whole life.  I’m an Eagle Scout and the father of an Eagle Scout.  A couple of years ago, after serving as Scoutmaster of a troop I launched, I decided to step down from the day-to-day interaction of serving at the troop level and try to find another way to help scouts.  I ended up serving as our district’s advancement chairman.  In this role, I interact with scouts on a regular basis who are working on becoming Eagle Scouts themselves.  It’s a very rewarding role, but not one without it’s frustrations.

One thing that frustrates me to no end, is when a scout comes to me with an idea for an Eagle Scout Leadership Service Project, that is clearly not up to the standards we have set.  Let me explain.  The project (or ESLSP) is like the “capstone” course of your college program.  It’s that opportunity for a young man to take all the leadership skills he has developed over the years and apply them in a very real, meaningful way, by providing service to his community.  There is no set number of hours that he must fulfill, only that he must demonstrate leadership.  There are a number of parameters that further define what is allowed and not.

So, here’s where the frustration comes in.  On a rare occasion I’ll have a young man come in with an idea that’s just “good enough”.  On the surface it meets the criteria, but it doesn’t really do anything to challenge him.  It’s quite obvious when you talk to him that he’s just trying to get by.  In fact, I’ve had a few boys actually tell me that this is what they were doing.  (I guess you can say “at least their honest”.)

Unfortunately, what I see in these boys (albeit a small subset of the onesI work with), is something that’s all to common in society and the workplace today.  People look for just “good enough”.  Good enough to meet the customer requirements.  Good enough to pass the minimum standard.  Good enough to make the minimum return on investment.  Good enough to finish on time, but not ahead of time.

Do you see that as much as I do?  I’m sure you do.  It’s very frustrating whether it’s on the job or in other environment. 

Real leaders don’t do this.  Real leadership involves taking on a challenge and delivering “above and beyond”.  I’m not looking for leaders that can meet expectations.  I’m looking for leaders that will blow away expectations. 

The world is full of people willing to get by.  If you want to make a different – on the job, in your family, in your church or other organization, take the mantle of leadership and don’t look for the easy way out.  Challenge yourself and those around you to blow away expectations and deliver far more than what’s expected.  That’s what real leaders do.

Assess then Act

Some leaders take action on very little direction, while others seem to never have enough to make a decision.

Over the years I’ve noticed that one area that many leaders (including myself) can often improve on, is the ability to take action at the right time, based upon the right amount of information.  Leadership is often about setting a direction.  That direction comes from making a decision about what needs to be done.  Some leaders take action on very little direction, while others seem to never have enough to make a decision.

The problem with taking action on too little information is that you often make the wrong decision because you are not fully informed of the details.  Take for instance this one time when an executive I worked with wanted one of my team members to go on-site to address a customer’s problem.  The only issue was, no one had researched yet what the source of the problem was.  And since my guy could only address about 25% of the potential issues, I saw it as a 75% chance of a wasted trip.  (Note, this wasn’t a trip across town, but one that would involve airfare, overnight travel and at least two days of lost productivity at the office).  I put the brakes on sending the person out, and instead had a trained technician call and walk through the issues.  As it turned out, a local technician was able to swing by the customer’s location and fix the problem in a couple of hours.  The customer was much happier than if they had waited two days only to have the wrong person show up.   My company was better off because we saved thousands of dollars in travel expenses and lost productivity.

On the other hand, some people take entirely too long to make a decision.  This is often called “analysis paralysis”.  Over the years, I’ve often found myself involved with decisions that could never be made, because there was always that “one more” piece of information.   A similar issue is “next year’s version” of the software or product will be better.  These decisions (or the lack thereof) also cost the company money.  They cause lost productivity, lost opportunity costs and overall frustration among team members.  I’ve also noticed that the likelihood of these problems increase exponentially with the number of people involved in making the decision.  That’s one reason I love working in a smaller company.

Every leader must become comfortable with making decisions at the right time.  The time is not a measure of days, but a measure of knowing when you know enough.  Rudy Giuliani, in his book “Leadership” talks about the principle of “Reflect, Then Decide”.  He says that he never makes up his mind until he has to.   Recognizing when you “have to” is the key to good leadership.  One of the principles Mr. Giuliani illustrates is relentless preparation.  The more data you have, the more communications you have with your team, the quality of the people giving you advice, all impact your ability to come to a decision quickly. 

The bottom line is that no one can tell you exactly when to make any particular decision.  It’s a skill gained over time.  By learning what works and what doesn’t, it’s something that’s inside the gut of a good leader.  But it takes preparation, confidence and good information to make the right decision at the right time.

Taking Credit or getting things done

“It is amazing how much you can accomplish when it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

I don’t know who is responsible for this quote.  Some say Abraham Lincoln, others refer to a similar quote made by Ronald Reagan, and still others attribute it to some guy named “anonymous”.

This quote was brought to my attention this week when some very dear friends took time to honor me for work I had done with Boy Scouts.  When I look back on the good things I’ve accomplished in life, this statement does ring true.  I’ve accomplished most when I focused on the goal and not worried about what I would profit in the end. 

Unfortunately, more and more I find the primary motivator for people is just the opposite.  I’ve certainly seen it exhibited by many in all walks of life.  Here’s to those who don’t operate that way.