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Q+A: Managing technical teams in the third sector

Fri 1 Feb 2019 | Elizabeth O’Neill

Elizabeth O’Neil has been in the tech world for twenty years. She helps technical leaders build high-performing teams and is not afraid to ask the tough questions. Elizabeth is currently head of projects and change at the Charities Aid Foundation, where she is using her expertise to help transform lives and communities accross the world

What are the skills that comprise successful leadership in the third sector?

The skills needed to be a successful leader is the third sector are the same as any other sector with the exception of needing a lot more patience.

I could give a very long list of skills like problem-solving, emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, coaching, critical thinking etc. However to be honest you can search on Google for this and get a better answer that I would give so instead here is my take on it.

There is only one thing that every single leader has in common regardless of occupation, position or rank, nationality, gender or religion: they have followers. You cannot be a leader unless you have followers. So with this in mind my top 3 skills or attributes are:

Ability to be authentic – Leaders stay true to the things that they believe in and tirelessly move towards their goals despite outside pressures to change or conform. Being true to yourself and what you believe in assures your followers of your intentions and what you believe in. AKA be your passion.

Ability to motivate people – A big part of being a leader is having the ability to motivate people around a direction of travel or goal. Getting people motivated to take action or do something means the ability to move forward, you have to be leading them somewhere. AKA show your passion.

Ability to communicate – A strong leader needs to be able to communicate to individuals at all levels in a way that works for the recipient. They need to be able to translate and share information so that it is easy for people to understand. AKA share your passion

How do you define an agile approach, and can you describe this process and what it aims to deliver?

The definition of agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. This is the North Star that we are aiming for however, it’s not easy. In order to achieve this you have to keep projects small while still delivering value. You have to be able to change direction and stop things (super hard in our sector) you have to be aligned as an organisation and you have to be able to collaborate.

For me, it’s about following the values and principles of agile and adapting it to your environment. On a practical level this means creating processes that support small iterative steps (think evolution more than revolution – but there will be exceptions). You have to put a process in place to be able to make decisions quicker. You have to put processes in place to be able to communicate better.

How does digital transformation change the makeup of a workforce, its culture and the projects you manage?

Digital transformation has brought us closer together. It has helped departments align to achieve a common goal or project. It has helped IT people to understand the business more and it has help business people understand IT more.

From a workforce point of view, it has changed a number of things that have then impacted on our culture (in a positive way) the big ones including valuing the team contribution over any single individual, investing and building a learning culture and adding new roles such as DevOps. This has been one of our biggest challenges. Getting the right people, with the right skills doing the right work is a daily activity. Some days it can feel like herding cats.

What unique challenges does managing highly technical teams bring?

After nearly 20 years working in technology there are 5 truths I have learned.

• Technical people are unpredictable and a law unto themselves.
• Technical people are opinionated and are happy to share that opinion
• Technical people are sceptical beyond belief
• Technical people love to challenge anything that smells even a little like management BS.
• Technical people need the constant challenge of new problems to solve, new things to learn and new technology to play with.

Mix all these together and it can be very challenging and amazingly rewarding. Working with technical teams makes you better because it’s hard work, there are very few sheep’s that will just follow you.

While not unique, the biggest challenge many charities are facing is finding and retaining great technical people. The cost is becoming a real barrier for many.

What is the secret to developing high-performing technical teams?

Communicate the “what” and the “why” with passion and authenticity. Run cover from them to remove blockers and then get out of their way and let them get on with it. And don’t forget to keep feeding them – technical teams love food.

What is your message to other firms in the process of digital transformation?

Digital has become an overused, generic term. Right at the start you need to determine your definition of the word and what it means to your organisation. Then: communicate, communicate, communicate and if you think you’re over communicating double your effort. You must also define a set of goals and an end state that explains your “why” that everyone can buy into. People want to know what’s in it for them. Remember to be brave, as it gets harder before it gets better and to create a set of decision principles at the beginning: what do you care about most? (e.g. time to market over perfection). This will help when you’re in the thick of it.

  • Opinions expressed represent Elizabeth’s own personal views and not necessarily those of her organisation

Join me at DevOps Live.

Elizabeth is presenting at DevOps Live, taking place at the ExCeL London March 12-13th. DevOps Live and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals.

Experts featured:

Elizabeth O’Neill

Head of Projects and Change


Agile charity DevOps digital transformation
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