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How women in the channel can be strong leaders

Karen Hanna presented at the SAP Canada workshop at the CDN Women of the IT Channel event

When Karen Hanna hires new employees, she looks for people who have a special mix of traits – something she calls “high talent, medium trouble.”

It may sound like a strange concept. But Hanna, a leadership coach, business advisor, and the head of TKB Hanna and Associates Ltd., has a justification for it. In her mind, there just aren’t any employees who are high in talent and low in trouble. Strong, productive employees will always have their own baggage and imperfections, and recognizing that is important, she said, adding she calls this the “Talent-Trouble Matrix.”

“Calling someone high talent and medium trouble is affirming, because you’re acknowledging they’re bright,” she said, speaking from a workshop sponsored by SAP Canada at the Computer Dealer News Women in the IT Channel Recognition Luncheon on Thursday.

“There’s nobody who is high talent, low trouble, otherwise they’re underutilized … But you need someone whose level of trouble is below their level of talent.”

There are a lot of challenges for women in IT. For example, women are typically an underrepresented minority in a profession traditionally dominated by men. There’s also an expectation for women to juggle the pressures of work and family life, especially if they have kids at home. But women who rise to positions of leadership have a lot of power and ability to manage others, and understanding how people can be talented yet have their own troubles is just one example of putting that into practice, Hanna said. During her workshop, she and Leagh Turner, chief operating officer at SAP, shared about different ways women can thrive as leaders in the IT industry.

For example, aside from thinking about the Talent-Trouble Matrix, women leaders should plan on “borrowing talent” from outside their organizations to get jobs done, Hanna said. There are a lot of professionals who may have some personal reason for wanting to do some contract work, so it doesn’t hurt to aim high and to ask for their expertise. Plus, there are always students and recent graduates who want to pick up skills and experience. Yet they also have new ways of thinking they can share with women in positions of leadership.

For women who might head up large divisions within a company, it might also help to recognize employees as being part of a troupe, rather than a team. Like a circus troupe, where performers can be part of different troupes and different acts, sometimes employees can filter off from one task to another, making some teams as small as three people and others as large as 50. So instead of looking at them as teams, and spending time doing team-building, overseeing people as part of different troupes may be a more effective leadership strategy.

Hanna also talked about how important it is to talk to employees in a way that validates them. With the 2:1 communication approach, she said leaders can give employees two pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback, ensuring employees don’t get defensive and are ready to hear constructive criticism.

After all, part of leadership and managing employees is to develop those employees as people, Hanna said. Women who want to be leaders need to think about keeping their people employable, even if they can’t promise they’ll be able to keep them employed during tough times within their companies.

“Never let anyone go without telling them the hard thing they need to hear,” she said, adding she herself has had to terminate people in the past. As hard as it is to do, it will help individuals immensely if their managers can tell them how they can improve – and by developing those individuals as employees, that shows development among women as leaders within the channel and the IT industry.