My Leadership Advice for Tech Professionals? Make Yourself Useful.

Wondering how you can multiply your impact in a post-pandemic workplace? Ask yourself: Are you being of service or are you simply doing your own thing?

Written by Liz Wiseman
Published on Oct. 20, 2021
My Leadership Advice for Tech Professionals? Make Yourself Useful.
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My career at Oracle Corporation began on a Sunday evening at a nondescript hotel in San Mateo, California. I was one of sixty new college recruits excitedly reporting for duty at the “Class of ’88” boot camp — a three-week intensive program where we would learn Oracle’s technology and the other basics we would need to be successful in the young, rapidly growing software company. Classroom instruction would begin the following morning; this evening was just for mingling and introductions. The participants had all recently graduated from an impressive array of universities, mostly from computer science and engineering programs. There were a few, like me, who had attended business school and others from the humanities. 

The boot camp leaders briefed us on the rigorous training schedule, which would culminate in a highly competitive team project: each team would build and present a business application using Oracle software. The program leader stressed the importance of having a balance of skills on each team and then abruptly declared, “Okay, techies on this side of the room, fuzzies on the other.” There were chuckles as the mass of programmers and engineers moved to the left side of the room, while the rest of us — the now self-conscious “fuzzies” — moved to the right side. We fuzzies would struggle with the technology on our own, so we were dispersed across the other teams. The formal training hadn’t even begun, but I had learned an important lesson: There was a skill set that was highly valued at Oracle, and it wasn’t mine. 

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Image: HarperCollins Publishers

I tucked away that insight and after the boot camp began working as an education coordinator for the consulting division, but just one year later my department was disbanded in a reorganization, so I needed to find a new job inside the company. I set my sights on the new- hire training group that ran the boot camp. I was hoping the group’s charter would expand to include leadership development, a field I was keenly interested in. I interviewed with the department manager and then her boss, Bob Shaver, the VP of administration. After answering his questions, I raised an issue. I’d seen young professionals thrown into management with little training, and I’d witnessed them wreak havoc on their teams. I confidently told him that Oracle needed a management boot camp, and that I’d love to help build it. 

I will never forget Bob’s reaction. He began, “Liz, this is compelling, but your boss has a different problem. She needs to get two thousand new hires up to speed on Oracle technology this year.” His explanation was another indicator that at that point, technical skills were more important than management skills. He continued, “It would be great if you could help her figure out how to do this.” His gentle guidance carried a loud message. What I heard was “Liz, make yourself useful.” 

The formal training hadn’t even begun, but I had learned an important lesson: There was a skill set that was highly valued at Oracle, and it wasn’t mine. 

I was disappointed. I knew the company needed people to teach programming, and I did want to teach, but I lacked passion for the nuances of correlated subqueries and the virtues of database-indexing techniques. To make matters worse, I was woefully underqualified, and the techies with their advanced degrees from MIT and Caltech would surely notice. I wanted to develop leaders, but now Bob wanted me to teach programming to a bunch of nerds. It was not the job I wanted to do, but it was the job that needed to be done. 

Seeing the wisdom and promise in his invitation, I joined the training group and volunteered to be a product training instructor, channeling my ambition to where it could have the greatest impact. I dived in, ordering the full set of product documentation and quickly partnering with a coworker, Leslie Stern, who had real technical chops. She taught me how to think like a programmer, which didn’t come naturally. But with her guidance and some very late nights, I figured it out. In turn, I shared a few ideas about teaching, and together we earned awards for outstanding technical instruction and taught many people who became pioneers in Silicon Valley, something I’m still proud of. 

I wanted to develop leaders, but now Bob wanted me to teach programming to a bunch of nerds.

I never became a true techie. But by being willing to delve deep into the technology, I built a reputation as someone who understood the business and worked on what mattered most. That reputation would later unlock many opportunities for me. I received a promotion to department manager within a year, but strangely, at that time, I wasn’t interested in a management role; I was enjoying my gig teaching programmers. Of course, when Bob explained why the company needed me to take the job, I once again gave up the job I loved to do the job that was needed. 

How Tech Professionals Become Leaders: The High Impact Habits

  1. Learn the Game
  2. Play Where You’re Needed
  3. Play With Passion

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The High-Impact Habits

Impact Players jump in because they believe they can make a difference. These are the habits that most differentiate Impact Players from their colleagues.

Habit 1: Learn the Game 

To be of maximum value inside an organization — to be of service — we first need to know what is valued. How clearly do you understand the skills and capabilities that are most prized in your organization? What are the top priorities? What warrants attention and care? What’s valued by your leaders, customers and partners? 

Understand the Goals 

A youth soccer coach once told me that the best players aren’t looking at their feet — they have their eyes open, seeing what is happening on the field. If you work in a business, this might entail understanding the business model — what makes the cash register ring. For a non-profit organization, it could involve knowing the outcomes that attract funding. Whether you work in a company or a public organization, in development or sales, you should have a broad view of what your organization does and a good grasp on how it succeeds. 

The ability to decode and adapt to organizational culture is even more vital than you might think.

When you understand what are the fundamental problems to solve, you will know how your work connects and see opportunities to help. You will know what to do, but to do it well, you need to know the values of the culture in which you are working. 

Know the Rules 

Every organization has a distinct culture, a set of values and norms that govern daily behavior and decision making. But as any careful observer of organizations also realizes, the stated culture is rarely the actual culture. Employees need to decipher the real culture to be successful. Impact Players are active decoders of the culture; they read the posters on the wall and observe the behavior in the hall. The ability to decode and adapt to organizational culture is even more vital than you might think. New studies suggest that cultural adaptability might be the hallmark of the most successful employees. Though many companies are searching for the right fit (and perhaps overlooking nontraditional candidates), it turns out that being able to read the room may be more important than coming from the right background. 

Pre-Order Liz’s Book!Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact

See the Agenda 

Most leaders and organizations have an agenda, a collection of issues or objectives that they care about. Sometimes these agendas are tangible in the form of mission statements, strategic initiatives or priorities for a particular period. However, in dynamic environments, tactical goals require adjustment as conditions change and new information emerges, which means that the stated agenda is rarely the real agenda. The real agenda is what’s important right now, and it defines what is relevant and essential for success. But the real agenda is rarely written down. 

If you aren’t working on your boss’s top three priorities, you are not working on the agenda

Do you know what’s important now? Do you understand your organization’s top priorities? Most importantly, do you know what is vital right now? If not, pay attention to what your leaders are spending their time on, what is being talked about, what has momentum, and what is celebrated. That’s the agenda. 

Habit 2: Play Where YOU’RE Needed 

While Contributors play their position, Impact Players play where they are needed. They work in the interstitial space, where big, messy problems don’t fall into any one person’s job boundaries. For these top contributors, job descriptions are starting points. 

In the world of work, Contributors are like the plastic soccer players on a foosball table — well spaced but locked into position along the rod. They can spin but easily miss the action. In sharp contrast, Impact Players operate more like the best live-action midfielders, who watch for developing action and then shift up- or downfield to play where they are most needed. They don’t leave their post; they play their position but expand their range. 

Impact Players work with passion, not on their passion. 

Working on the agenda should feel different than merely doing your job. For starters, it’s more intense; things move fast and there’s added pressure to perform. But with the added intensity comes greater efficiency. When you are working on what’s most important, stakeholders find time to meet with you and senior leaders provide needed resources, find funding and clear obstacles from your path. The stakes are higher, but the barriers are lower. And perhaps the greatest reward for getting onto the agenda is that work is simply more joyful. 

Impact Player Pro-Tip 

As a general rule, if you aren’t working on your boss’s top three priorities, you are not working on the agenda. 

Habit 3: Play with Passion 

Impact Players work with a sense of purpose and conviction, but they work in service of the organization’s unmet needs rather than their personal interests. Managers rarely described them as being passionate about a topic (e.g., “He’s passionate about artificial intelligence”) but often described them as being passionate about the work itself (e.g., “He’s passionate about solving problems”). Impact Players’ energy is channeled into how they go about their work rather than into the type of work they do. Impact Players work with passion, not on their passion. 

When people use their greatest strengths in service to something larger than themselves, there’s usually an extra spark of brilliance where everyone benefits. Are we working in service to something important, or are we simply doing our own thing? 

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From the forthcoming book Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact by Liz Wiseman. Copyright © Liz Wiseman. To be published on October 19, 2021 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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