Management, leadership and information technology

A few years ago, I participated in a six month program to train leaders in information technology. I learned a fair amount, perhaps enough to be disillusioned, and ever since the program, I can’t help but look at organizations in terms of their leadership. Case in point, the grapevine of ex-employees from my former workplace says that three employee resignations were announced last week. One person only gave one week notice. By my rough count, that’s about 20 people leaving since January – or approximately 8-10% of the work force. Ouch!

As a benchmark, I tend to think that a business organization will see about 15% turnover in a year. An academic institution, maybe 5%. The last 12 months at the old job has seen something close to a 20% turnover, prompting me to suggest to friends that there needs to be a web-based application to stream line the process. You could have work flow, automatic announcement letter generation, employee exit reviews, etc. Someone’s suggested name… iQuit.<org>.edu. Perfect 🙂

Ironically, several months before I left the organization, I started getting concerned with turnover and was probably thought a troublemaker. But again, the leadership course I took, the books I’ve read, etc. All suggest that when your best people are leaving, it’s a bad sign. Even if they are nominally leaving for personal reasons, their happiness in their current job was factored in and found wanting. Turnover means that the organization faces a loss of productivity as a replacement is found and trained. Skills and institutional knowledge are lost.  In my opinion, even a termination indicates a problem – i.e., what went wrong in the hiring process such that you hired a poor candidate? For a good explanation of why turnover in all its forms is a problem, read Peopleware – it focuses on software development, but can be applied to IT as well.

In contrast, I was reading Richard Clarke’s “Your Government Failed You: breaking the cycle of national security disasters” on the plane ride home from vacation. Near the end, he describes how to build an effective organization, borrowing from Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s 1981 speech to Columbia titled “Doing a Job.” In the speech, Rickover describes the management (“leadership” wasn’t the in-fashion word at the time) style he used in building the first nuclear submarine. Clarke summarizes the Rickover’s points as follows:

  • People, not organizations or management systems, get things done.
  • Management is hard work.
  • Subordinates must be given authority and responsibility early in their careers.
  • Get rid of formal job descriptions and organizational charts. Define responsibilities, but define them in a general way so that people are not circumscribed.
  • Complex jobs cannot be accomplished effectively with transients. Short rotations ensure inexperience and non-accountability.
  • Don’t downplay problems to save face.
  • Flatten management structures, but empower the remaining managers and hold them responsible.
  • Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.
  • The man in charge must concern himself with details. If he does not consider them important, neither will his subordinates.
  • Develop simple and direct means for finding out what subordinates are doing and what the status of projects is.
  • Don’t let your inbox set your priorities. Unimportant but interesting trivia pass through every day.
  • Check all work through independent and impartial review. In engineering and manufacturing, industry spends large sums on quality control but the concept of impartial reviews and oversight is important in other areas also.
  • Important issues should be presented in writing. Nothing sharpens the thought process like writing down one’s arguments.

Those seem like pretty good goals to me. I bet they reduce turnover too.


  1. etselec said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”

    Wow. That’s a truism if ever I heard one. That’s what my whole past month has been about.

  2. Brent Sheets said,

    June 12, 2008 @ 9:42 am

    “Don’t let your inbox set your priorities.”

    I’ve been guilty of violating this maxim on more than one occasion. Difficult not to, in our connected and deadline-driven world.

    Excellent post. I’ll be sure to mention it to our readership. Thanks.

  3. etselec said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 10:09 am

    Looks like someone thought about an iQuit-like thing specifically for Yahoo employees:

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