Friday, August 31, 2012

One Bad Raspberry

During the big oatmeal craze that started back in 1988 I made the decision to include that whole grain in my diet.  Back then I planned to live forever and still do, in fact.  Being much younger and with a less developed palette I started eating it raw right out of the Quaker container.  I was able to keep that up for about a month before reaching a point where just the thought of oatmeal would make me gag. 

Fast forward to 2002 - I decided again that I would pick up the habit.  By then I was married, luckily to someone with gourmet tastes and the skills to back it up in the kitchen.  We planned to eat a bowl of oatmeal three times a week for breakfast.  Our experiments in toppings included white sugar (too sweet), brown sugar (too boring), and bananas (too carb-y).  Finally my wife came up with a brilliant solution.  She figured out that if she used a three-fruit combination of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries with a little Splenda thrown in, the dish would never get tiresome.  And here we are, ten years later and still putting down the oatmeal three times a week, 52 weeks per year.

It's obvious by now that we are not going to talk about technology in this post.  Like finding the best combination of ingredients for a dish, putting together an effective team requires a lot of skill, patience, and effort. It's not always about having the best tools or equipment when it comes to having a highly effective IT organization.  As it always does, the "secret ingredient" of every great organization is having great people.  And it's not just about having great people, it is also about making sure that they work well together and that you can keep them. 

Superior performing organizations have many characteristics including diversity of talent.  Think of it this way: Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.  So naturally if you put five identical MJ's on the court as one team they would also be the greatest team of all time, right?  Wrong.  Basketball and IT organizations both need role players.  On the court a team needs tall centers, short point guards, deadly shooters, and ferocious rebounders.  In IT you need highly technical network admins, business savvy analysts, introverted (but talented) DBAs, friendly support technicians, etc.  Maintaining just the right mix of differing talent is a delicate but highly necessary juggling act.

Recruiting talent is a very difficult and time consuming task.  If it wasn't, there would be no such thing as a staffing agency - whether it be a small, local shop or a gold-plated international recruiting machine like Korn/Ferry.  Therefore, once you have put your great team together it becomes paramount to keep it in place.  If you don't, failure is just around the corner.  That failure will come packaged in many forms.  Sometimes it will be obvious in terms of major system outages that cannot be quickly remediated.  Other times it will manifest in the inability to rise to a new challenge that could greatly support the company's business strategies.  Or, as in many instances, you will be unable to establish a consistent, winning culture because the players keep changing (through attrition).

The format for this blog doesn't allow for me to cover all the areas that, as a leader, you need to keep track of in order to maintain your high performing team.  Instead, I'll focus on just one thing that can really help you be successful.  I want to relate this one thing back to my little story about oatmeal.  Part of what I like so much about the oatmeal we eat at home is the fresh fruit. There is just something magical about opening a small carton of fresh raspberries.  Seeing the ripeness of each berry, the juice just waiting to burst out, and the feeling of eating "pure-ness" when I pop one in my mouth is just wonderful.  This all comes with a catch.  Raspberries are usually the first fruit to go bad in our refrigerator.  I have to look at each berry carefully because mold in a whole carton inevitably starts in a singular berry.  Unlike cheese where the whole thing gets moldy at the same time, with raspberries the mold starts as just one small dot on one berry.  If I catch that berry quickly, I can remove it and the rest of the raspberries will be fine for another day or two.  If I don't pull that raspberry immediately, the whole carton will go bad in about another 12 hours.

Like cartons of raspberries, organizations of people can get moldy too.  Remember, we're all humans with feelings and emotions.  Just like raspberries, people will become disaffected or "moldy" from time to time.  I'm not referring to people having a bad day or occasionally getting into a funk.  I'm talking about people who become chronic complainers, malicious gossipers, start feeling entitled, or just "check out" mentally.  Another type of "mold" that I look out for are people who sabotage the work of others, yell/scream and generally treat others with disrespect.  Many times these behaviors start with just one person.  Ironically, it starts as much at the upper levels of an organization as it does at the lower end.

As a leader, you have to keep inspecting all of the people in your organization just like you might look at raspberries in a carton.  You must have the courage to remove these types of people quickly.  If you don't, your whole organization will most certainly begin to take on the same characteristics, just like mold running rampant through a full carton of berries.

Effective leadership of a sustained high performing group means acknowledging that sometimes people no longer fit on your team - whether by choice or circumstance - and that your continued success depends on having a willingness to be quick and decisive when that happens.

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