Thursday, April 5, 2012

You're their Superior; does that make you "superior"?

I've been thinking about writing this post for several months and recent events in U.S. politics have given me the impetus to actually write.

From a macro perspective, all of human civilization is more or less built upon the concept of hierarchies.  More simply, according to traditions as old as humankind, the person(s) above you, by nature of their position(s), are smarter/better/superior to you.  In ancient times, that meant that you took orders from a warlord, who was endowed by god, the gods, or superior muscles, with the wisdom and intelligence to guide you to a better and often longer life.  Over time, the warlord gave way to kings and queens, who in turn ceded power to politicians.

During the Industrial Age, which started in the 1800s and hit its peak in the 1950s, companies and corporations adopted the same model.  At the top would be a singular leader, usually the president or chairman.  Below this individual would be a small group of highly influential people - executives, vice presidents, and the like.  Then below them would come another layer of broader and less empowered people, and the cycle would continue down unto the bottom of the pyramid.  This group of people, by far the most numerous, were and still are called by the term "rank-and-file" employees.

The reasoning behind the various levels of empowerment within the pyramid was simple.  The people at the top, by virtue of being the smartest and most capable individuals (similar to the concept of "divine right"), would make all of the important decisions and hold all of the power.  The people lower in the pyramid near the "base" are never called on to think much about anything.  Their job is to execute the wisdom of their superiors.

Without really knowing it, corporations evolved much like monarchies did by assuming a core belief that humans within an organization have such vast differences in capability, knowledge, and vision that the majority must be ruled by an elite minority.

Now, I am not advocating for a complete re-engineering of the corporate model or stating that high level executives are not (a) very capable people and (b) decision making power should be distributed like an Athenian democracy.  What I'm saying is that in the corporations of today, the capabilities, intelligence, and vision of "rank-and-file" employees are much different than would have been found within the average employee from the Industrial Era.  This is even more true within IT organizations.

Most IT professionals today hold at least baccalaureate degrees if not master level distinctions.  They are also, in general, well educated in areas of business, project management, and finance.  As a senior leader and especially as a CIO, it is critical that you get to know your people and understand their capabilities.  If you are a good leader, odds are more than likely that you are NOT more capable than your employees in their specific areas of expertise.  And while you may be a more strategic thinker imbued with more inherent organizational power, don't think for a second that the professionals that work for you are simple.  In fact, if you work in the United States and employ people from countries such as India, China, or many other Asian nations, you can pretty much assume that they are as least as educated as you are, if not more so.  Competition in these nations for opportunities is so fierce that typically only the best do well enough to earn the chance to work overseas.

In the end, don't make the mistake of thinking that holding a high position of power automatically makes you superior to your employees.  Know that today's workers come with hefty "toolkits" both mentally and intellectually.  Find out what your people can do and work tirelessly to empower and train them to the maximum of your ability.  After all, "A rising tide lifts all boats."

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