When I fall into the discussion of IT's lack of vision, I always ask the same question of my opponent, "Who runs the Army?" Yes, it takes a moment for him or her to recover from my apparent lack of conversational focus but I have a good reason for asking. The answer is "The stars and the stripes." In other words, the generals and the enlisted ranks. The generals are the ones who plan the attacks, who figure out where to move troops, who manage supply lines, and who have the grand vision for victory over the enemy. The stripes are the ones who carry out that vision. The stripes are the ones in the trenches. They are the ones who take the hills. They are the ones who engage the enemy.
In IT, the generals are the CxOs, and the stripes are the network engineers, the security staff, the hardware support teams, the programmers, the testers, and the system administrators. The officers are middle management – the paper shufflers, the rule quoters, the bean counters, and the people who keep us in line as we fulfill our leader's visions.
The problem is that there's a huge gap between the stars and the stripes in IT. In the Army, the stars understand the need for well-trained, dedicated, loyal troops – soldiers who'll carry out orders without question and without hesitation. In IT, however, the stars see stripes as overhead, as cost units, as resources, and as people who can be replaced with cheaper versions from far away lands. We, as stripes, see them as profit-seeking, evil overlords whose only goals are to pander to shareholders and take home multimillion dollar bonuses as rewards for their "inspired" visions.
The dilemma is that neither the stripes nor the stars feel any loyalty to each other. IT isn't like the Army. Instead of fighting a common enemy or protecting common ground, we're bent on depleting our own ranks of our most valuable resources: morale, loyalty, longevity, and excellence. There's so much "us against them" mentality that forward progress slows to a crawl.
If you don't believe it, look at Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to stop employee telecommuting as a shining example of stars against stripes mentality. She stated that privilege abuse was the primary reason. She mentioned that some of the people began their own startups because of telecommuting. Unfortunately, she doesn't realize two important things about people. One is that the stars among you will shine no matter what you do to them. Employees have evenings and weekends to work on their startups. They don't have to cheat you out of company time. The second thing that Ms. Mayer has missed is that bad employees are bad no matter where you put them. In the office or at home, a bad employee is a bad employee. A bad employee's proximity to corporate headquarters has no effect on his or her behavior.
Yahoo is an example of this overall lack of vision dilemma. Ms. Mayer incorrectly blames the employees for Yahoo's plight but its problems go back farther than telecommuting. Remember that the orders, the morale, the loyalty, and the example all come from the top not the bottom. You build companies from the top down.
The ingredients for a successful company are a leader with vision, a leader who is loyal to the company and its people, a leader who makes wise decisions based on facts, and employees who believe in the vision. It's not about lofty mission statements, earnings per share, or the economy. Excuses and rhetoric have no power against vision. True visionaries are rare but they exist.
A true visionary values every soldier in the ranks. Every captain, every sergeant, and every raw private fresh off the farm has value to a visionary. None are expendable, none are worthless, and none can be replaced with knockoff versions. For those of you who slog through virtual trenches, focus on your company's vision and be loyal to it. The vision, its goals, and those it serves are the only things that matter.
Ken Hess * ADMIN Senior Editor