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Invest in transformational leaders, boost DevOps performance

To get the most out of DevOps, organizations must invest in their management layer, according to Nigel Kersten, a principle author of Puppet’s "2017 State of DevOps Report."

Successful DevOps requires more than the force of a grassroots movement. It also requires transformational leaders and executives committed to the cultural change.

This information comes from Puppet’s "2017 State of DevOps Report", based on more than 27,000 survey responses from IT professionals, developer and executives over the past six years.

The reports states that "characteristics of transformational leadership -- vision, inspirational communication, intellectual stimulation, supportive leadership and personal recognition -- are highly correlated with IT performance."

DevOps Agenda spoke with Puppet’s chief technical strategist and one of the report's principal authors, Nigel Kersten, about how organizations can develop DevOps leaders in middle management and at the enterprise level.

The report found that poor leadership is more indicative of low IT performance than transformational leadership is of high performance. Why do you think that is?

Nigel Kersten: We’ve had all of these anecdotes in business for decades, that people leave their job because of bad managers. They don't necessarily stay in their jobs because of good managers. They stay at their jobs because of good relationships with peers. But bad managers drive out employees. They cause all sort of ineffectiveness throughout the organization.

Are there any institutional barriers to transformational tech leadership?

If you look at the actual average tenure of a CIO or a CTO in a large organization, it tends to be three to four years. And I think CIOs are actually trending downward to be about three years.


Gene Kim, Dr. Nicole Forsgren and
Alanna Brown break down the
report's essential findings.

I was bringing this up to a bunch of guys at the [DevOps] Enterprise Summit, and there was a general idea that when CIOs land at a company, they're kind of in trouble and looking to turn themselves around. They have six months to climatize themselves around everyone and then start announcing their big strategy -- what they're actually going to change. Then they have a year and a half to actually implement all those changes and then the ossification and general bureaucracy of the organization start dragging them down, and things don't look as great for a year. And then they move on to another job.

How can we start developing transformational leaders?

I've actually been taking a lot of this report and particularly talking to directors and senior directors, the sort of people below that executive level in organizations and pushing at them with, 'Even if you don't have the buy-in from leaders above you who you consider transformative, you have immense scope even as an individual manager to apply these principles within your domain.' You really need to invest in your management layer. You really need to support them. You need to train them.

How has this process gone at Puppet?

I joined [Puppet] when we were 15 people, and now we're 500 odd. We've had to work out ... what does it mean to be a manager here? How do we support people who are entering the management track for the first time? How do we work with people who have been successful managers in other companies perhaps with a wildly different model? How do we take the best bits that they have and how do we get rid of the things we don't really like? How do you actually support management so it's actually recognized as the lifeblood of the company in many ways and not just bureaucracy?

How do you actually support management so it's actually recognized as the lifeblood of the company in many ways and not just bureaucracy?
Nigel Kerstenchief technical strategist

I think you really need managers at least capable of doing the job one level below them. They may not be the best person on the team at doing [that job]. If someone's managing the developer, you don't need them to be the alpha developer. But they need to have an understanding of how to do that job to step in in case of emergency.

Being able to do the job a level below helps managers develop empathy with employees. We don't spend enough time investing in people and teaching them how to communicate.

This was last published in July 2017

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