One CIO’s “lessons learned” in managing others

Here’s a shocker: none of us has failed to fail at times.

We’ve all screwed things up on occasion, and I’m no exception. And that’s especially true when it comes to managing others, which I believe is very much a learned skill. In that spirit, there are a number of things about people management (call them reminders, admonitions, lessons) that I’d especially want to tell my younger self if I had a time machine. Each one arises from a situation where I’ve learned a lesson the hard way over the years, either from mishandling something myself, or from watching a peer, colleague, or my own manager mishandle it.  As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

So here are a few things to keep in mind when managing others.  These lessons have arisen from (largely) IT situations, but their scope and impact is hardly limited to IT.  They’ve become a capsule summary of how I want to manage, and how I like to see people around me manage others.  In fact, when I encounter an instance of “bad management”, or think back on my own missteps, I can almost always point to a deficiency in one or more of these specific areas as the underlying root cause.In no particular order:

  • Let people own their projects/efforts/tasks.  Even if you could do it better. Even if the result is not exactly, precisely, perfectly what you thought you wanted.  Most of the time, if the result is 90% of where you wanted it (completeness, style, content), it’ll do.
  • Don’t take people’s work output and tweak it unless it’s absolutely necessary.  You don’t always have to visibly “add value” to be legitimate or respected.
  • You need to be a collaborator at least as much as a critic. Solve problems together with your team.  That doesn’t mean do their work for them, but it means actively being there, understanding the issues, and helping figure out course corrections, not merely waiting to evaluate results.
  • Don’t suck up all the oxygen in the room. Let others talk, shine, steer. There’s no rule that says that the most senior person in the room has to run the meeting, for example.
  • Most people need regular shots of both thanks and praise. Thanks and praise are not the same.
  • Not everyone is motivated the exact same way. Your approach to a situation can and usually should differ, depending on what motivates the person you’re dealing with.
  • It’s helpful to assume that your team is collectively and individually smarter than you are, but that they’re possibly not as aware of or focused on the big picture. You’re there to confirm (and guide) that what they’re doing corresponds to the larger goals.
  • Each of your team members has ideas and experience and expertise and smart things to say. Listen, don’t just talk.
  • Keep ever mindful of the following: you will (almost) never have a team member who doesn’t at heart want to excel in their role.
  • Remember: as an executive, you’re there (almost solely) for three basic things: to set the fundamental direction, to allocate resources appropriately, and to make the tough decisions that others won’t or can’t.  People are looking to you to do those specific things, reliably and well. Don’t let them down.
  • Give people a lot of rope, whenever you can. Particularly when they have passion and excitement.  Find ways to say yes to their approaches and initiative, to every reasonable degree.
  • Embrace and exemplify continuous improvement as a philosophy and approach to all things.
  • Celebrate successes. Guide people past their failures, and make those into positive learning experiences as much as you can.  This one sounds easy, but was among the hardest for me to absorb.
  • “Managing upwards” and sideways (peers, CEO, board) is every bit as important as managing your team. But it’s not an either/or. Depending on the circumstances, there will be times when you focus more on one than the other; both are equally deserving of your energy.
  • Admit your mistakes. Don’t stonewall or rewrite history about them.
  • Speak positively of your team members, of peers, of management, of vendors. When you don’t, people notice, and they extrapolate.

Did this list strike any nerve? Did any specific examples come to mind, where you’ve seen executives or other managers fall down on some of these items?  I thought so.  The list could easily be longer, of course, and I look forward to the comments that will almost certainly mention a few areas I’ve neglected to cover.


  1. Vicki Mains says

    I whole-heartedly agree wih you. I believe it is all about respect – in all directions. This is something that is earned not just given.
    And finally, laugh now and then. Give the team opportunities to share a laugh now and then, and celebrate their accomplishments. It is so fast paced – every now and then it is good to acknowledge what has been accomplished recently.

  2. Great article – Even Better Advice. I love how common sense prevails in these matters. Exceptional Leadership seems to alway go back to basics.

    “Back to Basics” was a core theme emphasized by Intel’s CIO at our IT Leaders Conference this past January.


  3. Peter,

    This list is a fine distillation of the art of leadership. Items 2, 4 and 5 are where the great leaders separate themselves from the good ones. Once you reach a certain position, there should not be any insecurity in you – having that forces you unconsciously to do things that leaves a trust debt with your team. “Value-adding” is one of the most insidious things that happen to every leader which they must guard against.

    Thanks for the great read!

  4. Interestingly, all of it is not specific to a CIO position, I think it applies very well across most leadership positions. Thank you for putting “on paper” these valuable nuggets. Some are close to home….

  5. Thanks Peter, this is a great list – helpful for so many managers and leaders out there.

    Appreciate the sharing.



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