Many COOs and VPs have had the unsettling realization that they’re now ultimately accountable for the performance of a team that in some cases might as well be speaking a different language. (We’re talking here, of course, about senior positions where the head of IT reports to you – not positions where you manage the IT team’s day-to-day work.)
Before you start fearing that you’ll need to head back to school and take courses in systems analysis or rapid application development, instead try these five key ways that non-techies can effectively oversee an IT team.
1. Hire strong people. Consider bringing in outside IT help when hiring key IT players, to help you create the job description, screen candidates, and participate in interviews. It’s crucial to get your hiring right here, since you’ll need to be able to trust this team to give you straight answers about how long something will take and what resources it will require, what resources they need, and what is and isn’t doable. You don’t want to be second-guessing those answers, so you need to hire people you’re going to trust and have confidence in.
2. Get aligned about big picture goals. You might not have much idea about how your IT team will achieve a particular goal, but you should know at a high level what goals need to be achieved. For example, you might agree that your IT team needs to deliver a fully-tested interactive mobile app up and running in time for your spring product launch with features X, Y, and Z, or ensure that technology runs smoothly enough that employees’ work is never more than minimally and rarely interrupted. Getting aligned about the outcomes you’re looking for is the important part; from there, they can figure out the best way to get there.
3. Ask good questions. Part of your role is to ensure that your tech folks are anticipating obstacles and challenges and have a plan for what they’ll do if things go wrong, that they’ve reality-checked their processes and plans, and that they’re taking things like organizational constraints into account. That means you need to ask good questions. For example: “What could go wrong and how will you plan for that?” “What milestones will you need to hit to make this delivery date?” “If this projects ends up not being a success, what do you think will have gone wrong?” “How do other companies handle the risk of X?”
4. Pay attention to what you do see and understand. You might not understand all the technical details, but you probably know whether your organization is getting what it needs in the IT realm. Focus on those pieces. For example, if you’re the COO, you probably don’t need to understand exactly how your client contact database works, but you do need to know whether it’s giving your sales staff the functionality they need to do their jobs effectively. And you should certainly know things like whether your email and web connectivity are running smoothly.
5. Be honest about your limitations. Trying to bluff your way through technical conversation will hurt, not enhance, your credibility. You’ll gain far more trust by saying honestly, “I don’t understand this – can you explain it to me in layman’s terms?” or “Could you help me understand why X makes more sense than Y?” If you have the right people on your team and they see you adding value in other areas, they won’t hold this against you.