Robina Chatham reflects on how she lost sight of the importance of people skills.
My career commenced within the shipbuilding industry. It was the early ‘80s and I joined a shipyard along with nine other engineering graduates. I spent the first two years on the shop floor as a “fitter’s mate” in order to complete my training to become a chartered engineer. During this time I learned little about engineering but a lot about people, industrial relations and shop-floor survival tactics.
Following my stint on the shop floor, I went into the planning department and quickly became involved with putting computers onto the shop floor for the first time. I ended up project-managing two major projects; the first was a manufacturing control system and the second an access-control system whereby entry to or exit from the shipyard could only be gained via a bank of 20 computer-controlled turnstiles.
A simple outlook
At this point in my life and career I was naïvely unaware of all the potential problems and pitfalls normally associated with such groundbreaking projects. I was also unaware of the stages a computing project should go through, the development lifecycle and development methodologies. Nor were there any IT textbooks to help or guide me.
I therefore operated purely on instinct, gut feel and basic common sense. Yet both projects were a huge success. I cannot claim they went in on time, to budget or as specified, since there was no budget, plan or detailed specification. However, the systems worked, they fulfilled business imperatives, the workforce liked them and the unions were content. Furthermore, over the period I was promoted three times, and my salary doubled.
As my career progressed I learned how to manage projects and develop systems “properly” – it was at this point in my career that things started to go downhill. Don’t get me wrong, I never did a bad job, but I could never recapture my early successes. The question is why? My analysis of the situation is as follows. By now I was a fully-fledged member of the IT community, and had moved to the finance sector where money was more plentiful. I was sent on training courses; I learned about methodologies, process and procedures and project management. I watched my peers and bosses; learned from them and tried to emulate their behaviour.
However I forgot what came naturally to me – the people side, networking and building relationships. I had naturally (for me that is) focused on building relationships with people – I did this throughout my two-year stint on the shop floor. Later, when I talked to the people on the shop floor and to the unions, they trusted me. When I told them IT wouldn’t threaten their jobs but would ease some of the more mundane aspects, they believed me and willingly helped my projects to happen.
During the middle years of my career, I learned to consider the time I had spent on relationship-building as a luxury rather than a necessity. I therefore stopped doing it because I didn’t feel I had the time. I felt that I should be concentrating on “work”. Lunch breaks became a snatched sandwich while catching up with my email, rather than a time to dine with, talk to and get to know my user community and business peers.
I have now re-qualified as a psychologist and reflected on where I went wrong. I ignored a natural and oh-so-important talent of mine – that of relationship-building.
I have recently embarked on a major study of IT professionals who have progressed beyond the ranks of IT and made it to the position of CEO. Such individuals told me that they spent 50 per cent of their time networking and relationship-building while in that top IT role. The findings might equally apply in finance staff.
In hindsight, I would have handled those middle career years very differently. As one of the CEOs in my study so succinctly put it: “IT leadership is about getting the best out of people and not about building processes and procedures”. If only I could have my time again.
This article is adapted from Robina’s fourth book, The art of IT management: Practical tools, techniques and people skills, published by the British Computer Society.
Dr Robina Chatham is a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and founder of Robina Chatham Ltd