A-Teams of IT: How to Build a Crack Strike Force

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IT is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it. And these days it takes a team of talented technology professionals, each with his or her own special expertise, to carry out mission-critical assignments.

But how do you assemble your Alpha Team to tackle a fast-tracked business initiative, to shore up a new attack surface in your infrastructure, to transition your IT operations to take advantage of the latest advancements?

You start by choosing a tough leader who's backed by friends in upper management and can keep everyone working together. You'll need infrastructure sherpas to keep the packets flowing and coding geniuses to keep your software development on track. You'll need experts in physical and network security (Mohawk hairstyle optional). And you'll want people who have their eyes on usability and trends, to keep current with the latest generations of software and devices.

"It really is a team," says Susan Anderheggen, VP of service management and field force support systems for Verizon's wire-line division. "There are very few programs that can be done by an individual, so you have to trust the other people on the team will do their part. You can't be a lone soldier. You need to ensure you do have your 'A' people on your team because you need all of these components to get things done."

Remember, there is no Plan B. Here are the seven essential members of your IT A-Team.

IT A-Team Personnel No. 1: Air Support

Every IT project needs a well-placed friend on the business side who can provide air cover from on high. The trick is to find the suit who will not turn out to be the evil mastermind who sends our heroes to certain doom--a movie cliché that too often plays out in IT special-ops scenarios.

Often this is a CIO who can assure other C-level execs the money they're pouring into that IT project will pay off in spades over time. Or it might be a tech-savvy business analyst who fends off resource-sapping requests from upper management, or merely someone who takes cigarette breaks with the CFO and knows the organization's pain points. Most importantly, this key team member acts as a bridge between the suits and the geeks to clear roadblocks and run interference when necessary.

"This person knows the political pulse of the organization and can get things done in an expedient manner by using unofficial channels," says Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a business strategy consultancy. "He helps force decisions to be made that would otherwise stall the project in its tracks and serves as a buffer for the team, doing everything from preventing them from being called into pointless meetings to ensuring that ancillary players fulfill their responsibilities."

This person doesn't have to be a geek, but does need to be fluent in both tech talk and managementese. He or she also needs to master the delicate skill of telling the bosses no without offending them, says Adriana Zona, director of IT for Minco, a manufacturer of components for military and medical facilities.

"You can't tell the business side an idea is nonsense if they're the ones who came up with it," she says. "I call these people the bouncers or gatekeepers--they guard IT from irresponsible requests. Half of their job is saying no in a friendly way. Every IT department is bombarded with these kinds of requests. If you did them all, you wouldn't be doing the right thing for your company."

IT A-Team Personnel No. 2: Fearless Leader

This no-nonsense, cigar-chomping leader is responsible for both assembling the right team and keeping it on task. It's a job that demands equal parts technical know-how and management aplomb, not to mention financial savvy, says Abid Ali, vice president of Tata Consultancy Services, a global IT service and outsourcing organization.

"Team leaders are more like an army general," says Ali. "They'll need some grounding in technology, but they also have to have a good understanding of the business they're delivering to, and of the bottom line. That is often what makes or breaks the success of a team."

Ali says the key to a good team is diversity--assembling the right mix of system architects, database admins, infrastructure grunts, business and data analysts, security specialists, and so on--and getting them to work together. The right leader is one who can achieve this in a seemingly effortless manner. As you can imagine, these types are few and far between.

"Wouldn't it be great if you could throw a bunch of professionals together and they just all get along and work wonderfully together?" says Brenda Kerton, owner of Capability Insights Consulting. "That can happen, but relying on it is rolling the dice. Most A-Teams got to that because someone paid attention to helping them gel as a team. The team stages of forming, storming, norming, and performing don't go away just because we throw a good mix of skills together."

Being the fearless leader also requires both extreme tenacity and excellent communication skills, says Verizon's Anderheggen.

"They have to be able to take the bull by the horns and question things, yet also be likable," she says. "A program manager who ticks everyone off will never be successful."

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