As IT leaders, we know we must be agents of change. Some of us have embraced this challenge more readily than others. The main reason we have struggled to meet this new expectation is that for years CIOs were not valued for their leadership skills per se but rather for the project management and technical skills necessary to meet the basic blocking and tackling of IT service delivery.
Now we find ourselves setting strategy and creating competitive opportunities for our companies. What this means is that we can no longer lead through control of projects and resources, expecting our staff to do as we say. Rather, we have to demonstrate we are worthy of being followed. We need to be authentic. Authenticity of leadership is the first step toward building high-performance teams.
The Leader Makes the Culture
A high-performing IT organization has a culture that I call purposeful. This culture is characterized by:
- A clear, compelling purpose that drives decisions and ignites passion among employees.
- Shared values that serve as guidelines for delivering on the organization’s promise to its constituents.
- A work environment that encourages individuals to take ownership of the organization’s performance and its culture.
The successful integration of performance with culture starts with the CIO. We establish our organization’s shared values. Then we live them.
I have experienced how powerful an organization becomes when this is done well. But I have also been in situations where I have neglected to connect my goals with those of my team and my company. Early in my career I had a management style best described as “lightning rod.” I loved to be at the center of things. I relished being the person everyone called when they needed to get something done. This role was helpful in situations where I needed to create the appearance of cohesion in a team—for instance, when the business had a negative perception of IT. I was able to cut through roadblocks and force action. It made me look good.
However, I failed to notice the negative impact of my management approach over time. During this period, my decisions reflected my own purposes. I left organizations regularly, seeking the next big thing. And I left my teams rudderless because I had not developed effectively the capabilities of everyone around me. Their business relationships suffered, and negative perceptions crept back when I left.
I was continuing along this path of charismatic control when I became CIO of Royal Caribbean in April 1999. The next year, Terry Pearce, author of Leading Out Loud, urged me to rise above this tendency and become a more engaged leader. Pearce was conducting a workshop with my team. Before leaving, he pulled me aside and challenged me to give away my “power.” I began developing shared values and attempting to create a purposeful culture. I committed to staying at least five years. I told my direct reports my plans and asked them to hold me accountable.
Then came 9/11. A month later I had to lay off 50 percent of my organization. And I became a believer in what I was espousing because I saw the benefits of the new leadership approach in action.
I watched as the survivors sought refuge in our shared values, relying on their belief that these would not change even though everything else was changing. I understood then that my team was motivated not by my persona but by the common cause of restoring an organization they believed in. The team became stronger with a group of leaders united in our values and purpose. Although we planned to do nothing more than maintain the current IT environment for the next year, we ended up introducing some of the most advanced IT capabilities in our industry, such as a ship-side Internet café and online cruise bookings. We also benefited from the creation of a climate where my staff was not afraid to tell the truth. We used a process I call "Undiscussables," with ground rules for discussions about uncomfortable subjects. Initially, we had 64 undiscussables, ranging from whether DB2 or Oracle was the right future database platform to problems with vice presidents whose behavior was not aligned with our values. We addressed every item. Two years later, we didn’t need the process because we had learned to address even the most difficult issues and keep moving ahead.
How to Live Your Values
Here are three ways that you can improve your connection to your team and begin building a purposeful culture.
- Connect with your organization’s purpose and values. I look for the key element of the company’s strategy and attach IT to it so the team can see how their efforts enable the company’s success.
- Evaluate and align key IT practices so they promote enhanced performance, risk-taking and commitment. We have continuous improvement teams, which look for opportunities to celebrate success, create recognition and reward programs, and streamline processes. We introduced "No Meeting Thursdays" to allow managers time to spend with their teams.
- Model the organization’s purpose and values. I try to greet every person by name and express a sincere interest in what he is doing. At AmerisourceBergen we agreed as a team not to have a holiday party last year and instead donated time to a local food bank. When we promote someone, we highlight that person’s results and behaviors.
We built our organization by hiring a lot of outsiders. As we started to promote from within, we proved that we were willing to work with people to grow internally. This, in conjunction with a clear career path grid, has made it easier for managers to match their staffs with projects that will help them achieve their career goals within the company.
Bad leaders use control to get results. Good leaders get people to work for them. Great leaders get people to work for a cause that is greater than any of them—and then for one another in service of that cause. Engaging in a common purpose and executing that purpose according to shared principles enables your team to accomplish something no individual could do alone. This is what our role as IT leaders is all about.
Tom Murphy is senior vice president and CIO with AmerisourceBergen. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.