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How to Keep Your Security Team Happy

Oct 01, 20077 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Juggling the needs of top performers and less-seasoned team members can be difficult, but it's critical to everyone's growth

The e-mail was from one of my best engineers, and it began, “I don’t understand why you keep giving these important projects to people with a track record of not performing. John hasn’t completed a task yet without someone coming in to bail him out at the last minute. I can deliver this task in less time and give you a better product and you know it! I’m concerned about how you are managing this team.”

My first reaction was “What! You’re concerned about my management style? I’ve been doing this leadership stuff longer than you’ve been alive and I think I know what I’m doing.” My second thought was “Uh oh, I have bigger problems than getting this individual job done. Now I have to nurture two people, but only one of them is the real issue and the other one is my best guy!”

The Dangers of Class Warfare

You know the drill. If you are lucky and have recruited well, you have a couple of people who are always ready for a new challenge and are willing to tackle literally anything. In fact, they thrive when the stress is high and the challenges are significant.

The positive aspect of such employees is that they are typically successful and you can always count on them for their best effort.

The negative aspect is that it’s easy to find yourself overloading these “A” players. Because our days are filled with crises and stress, these go-to guys are the folks you can absolutely count on for success—just like pushing the Staples Easy Button! That’s the problem though, it’s too easy! The nullifying outcome is that your “B” players will eventually grow resentful if a few superstars seem to be getting all the important projects. Unless you’re careful, you’ll soon find yourself being criticized by both groups because you’ve created a class war. The “A” players will eventually be unhappy because you’ve given them too much to do, and the “B” and “C” players will be mad at you for ignoring them. Don’t fool yourself either—even your people who know they’re not “A” players will feel left out.

The “A,” “B” and “C” player analogy is obviously a rule of thumb, but it’s necessary to have some combination of these different people in your organization. Too many of one without the others leads to an imbalance that can overwhelm your ability to manage them. While it’s interesting to contemplate, can you imagine an entire team of “alpha geeks?” Yikes! The point is that while you’ll always have a range of skill levels in your organization, you will also have varying levels of maturity, loyalty and dedication.

Achieving a Blend of Skills

Alpha geeks tend to have an arrogance about their technical skills. This also gives them the false confidence that they must obviously be good at everything. I occasionally comment to up-and-coming leaders that there are many facets to running an operation and they only see things at their level of the organization, just like I tend to only see things at my level of the organization. A key ingredient of good leadership is the ability to look beyond that level and attempt to see the larger picture. So, your standard alpha geek thinks he can do everything better than everyone else. But what about the rest of your staff—those “B” and sometimes even “C” players who make up the majority of your team? They may not be superstars but you count on them to help do the daily jobs that are the bulk of your work.

This is especially true in the public sector, where I work as the CISO for a government agency, and the workforce tends to be fairly static and less prone to taking career risks. Unlike the private sector, where you can cut people loose for underperforming, in most public sector organizations you have a civil service and organized labor to be concerned about when dismissing, counseling or disciplining employees. I’ve found the hard way that it takes a lot more time and emotional effort when you handle a personnel performance situation poorly than when you take the time to do it right.

Saving Careers Through Leadership

A big part of our job as leaders of our security organizations is to grow our people. Call it mentoring, call it training or call it succession planning—working to make our people better is critical not only to our own success but to the success of our organization, and I also believe it’s a moral obligation to the people and society in general. This doesn’t mean that when an employee has a lack of aptitude or a lack of desire we pour endless amounts of time or money into training him, but it does mean that we make a good faith effort to help our people be productive. It costs a lot more to hire a new employee than it does to make an existing employee productive if the ability and desire are there.

For example, I recently took over an organization that had “leadership problems” at the operational level. Its manager had come in with a great reputation as a technical wizard but was floundering as a manager. The organization simply wasn’t getting things done and morale was headed south. What I quickly discovered was classic: While a savant and clear “A” player in the technical arena, he was a mediocre “C” player in his management role and didn’t know how to prioritize tasks. He was used to having a very defined role with clear technical responsibilities, and my predecessor just assumed this guy could figure it out. So as this young manager started being inundated with issues, he tried to time-slice each of them into his daily schedule without delegating anything, and the result was that nothing was getting done. My response was to begin providing very defined tasks that allowed him some small management successes. This increased his confidence and also increased the confidence of those working for him that he was going to make a successful transition from technician to manager. A less effective reaction to this situation would have been to simply write him off as a bad manager and put him back into a technical role without attempting to remedy or understand the problem.

The Payoff

With quality management time, a little hands-on mentoring and encouragement, I helped him recover, and he has become a very successful technical manager. He’s not an “A” player in the management role yet but that comes with experience. I now have confidence that he will grow into the role.

Another thing I’ve learned is that while you can’t salvage everyone, especially those who don’t want to be saved, we probably need to make a greater effort to save some of those “C” players in our organizations. Fortunately, if you’ve done the right thing in trying to grow your employees, in the event that things just don’t work out, you have a documented trail of performance weaknesses and your attempts to remedy those gaps. That should satisfy any HR administrator or union honcho, and sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest to just move on. 

CSO Undercover is written anonymously by a real CSO.