by Dan Roberts

5 questions with CIO-turned-CEO Ted Colbert

Sep 15, 2021
IT Leadership

The Boeing Global Services president and CEO shares the leadership wisdom he lives by and why it’s not IT’s job to give the business what it wants.

Ted Colbert, president and CEO, Boeing Global Services
Credit: Boeing Global Services

Ted Colbert is president and chief executive officer of Boeing Global Services, where he leads the aerospace services development and delivery model for commercial, government and business aviation industry customers worldwide. Prior to becoming CEO in October of 2019, Ted served as Boeing’s CIO and senior vice president of information technology & data analytics. In that role he led all aspects of information technology, information security, and data and analytics and supported the growth of Boeing’s business through IT and analytics-related revenue generating programs.

Ted made a fairly rapid ascent to the C-suite of a Fortune 100 company, and he credits the cumulative effect of learning and knowledge he picked up along the way working in different industries, jobs and areas of organizations.

When I spoke with Ted for the CIO Whisperer’s podcast, we talked about the leadership role models, mentors, and lessons that helped prepare him to take on big jobs and opportunities, among them his transition from CIO to CEO and his appointment to the Board of Directors at ADM. After the show, he shared some more of his leadership wisdom, philosophy and keys to success. What follows is that off-air conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: Can you take us inside the “Ted Colbert Playbook”? By my count, you’ve now applied this playbook to at least four levels of leadership: Director, VP, CIO, and CEO.

Ted Colbert: Over the course of my career, I’ve worked and lived through several significant challenges in the auto, financial services, and now aerospace industries. During each of those experiences, I’ve led at different levels of each company, and the lessons learned about leading through and emerging from each crisis were invaluable.

My leadership style reflects those who have taught me some of the most impactful lessons over the past two-plus decades. These learnings consistently reinforce several important elements of the “playbook,” including valuing all people, embracing and leveraging complexity, thinking big (really big), laughing a lot, continuously focusing on expectations and alignment, and realizing that excellence has to happen every day.   

There is a quote from the most famous Morehouse president, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, that makes this clearer:

There is an air of expectancy at Morehouse College. It is expected that the student who enters here will do well. It is also expected that once a man bears the insignia of a Morehouse Graduate, he will do exceptionally well. We expect nothing less… May you perform so well that when a man is needed for an important job in your field, your work will be so impressive that the committee of selection will be compelled to examine your credentials. May you forever stand for something noble and high. Let no man dismiss you with a wave of the hand or a shrug of the shoulder.

The playbook begins and ends with applied excellence during the good times and challenging times. Running the playbook sets the conditions for excellence. 

What have you learned from some of the challenging times?

I believe that all my experiences amounted to a well-rounded view of how leadership, corporate culture, team dynamics, inherent biases, etc., play a part in the orchestra of corporate America. For example, after completing an internship program at AT&T Bell Laboratories, I expected to move into a full-time role with the company post-graduation. However, since the company was going through structure changes and an eventual demerger, full-time roles were not available for interns.

So, I had to pivot and ask myself where I wanted to go instead. How you handle those fearful moments builds character and resilience. Every step of your career has value if you take the time to see the lessons learned and are open to what various opportunities lie ahead. A career path is more of a jungle gym than a straight ladder, and you must be agile to keep climbing.

The breadth and depth of experiences that I’ve had over the years have enabled me to make faster decisions, and I feel more at ease with taking calculated risks. And ultimately, while still using facts and data, I’m now much more comfortable with trusting my intuition. I also balance that trust in intuition with constantly seeking more information from diverse sources.

I have a couple of “Ted-isms” I want to ask you about. First, tell us more about what you mean when you say, “If you don’t like the conversation, if you don’t like the narrative, change the darn conversation, change the darn narrative!”

This is about keeping your head in the game and providing value to your team and organization. We become better listeners and learners when we’re present in the moment. That’s when a unique point of view forms and sparks the courage to speak up and contribute to the solution. The most successful leaders are the those who thrust themselves into the chaos and take on the most challenging work, all with infinite curiosity. Ultimately, they’re inspirational thinkers and doers who know what they stand for and who find a way to create and deliver value for their organizations.

Changing the narrative and conversation is all about speed to value. If you see value in an outcome, and the stakeholders you are trying to influence are focused on the wrong thing, you have to influence them to focus on where value can be created.

For example, we used to have CFOs focused on the per-unit costs of PCs without seeing the big picture of the end-to-end services we were receiving from our supplier. We changed the conversation away from per-unit costs, explained the value of the services we received and then used the opportunity to ask the question about how we could leverage technology to reduce the unit costs of the products we were selling to our customers—pennies on the dollar of a PC or millions per copy of the product? Which discussion do you think the CFO was more interested in? The best CIOs I know are great business people that order their thought process in the following way: people, business, technology. 

And what do you mean when you say, “You’ve got to fight in the middle of the ring, and if you’re not ready to, then fight another day”?

This is about showing up with the best version of yourself and understanding that there are no days off when working toward your goals. Put in the time and energy to get where you want to go. Step outside of your comfort zone, sign up for a professional development program, or do whatever it takes to build the skills and experiences to reach your goals. But also remember, while your career is important, it does not need to be your whole life. Find activities that bring you joy and help your mind, body, and spirit recharge after a long week. You are a person both in and out of the office. Don’t neglect either side of your development.

Fighting in the middle of the ring is about asserting your position as a value creator when you have a “seat at the table.” As an IT leader, either you’re going to passively participate as a business leader or you’re going to come ready to be able to add value every day. Your business partner may not fully understand the implications of delaying that “transition,” or the impact of technical debt on business risk, or the plethora of opportunities that come with digital enablement. Fighting in the middle of the ring requires you to first put tech enablement in business terms and then figure out how to make your idea so compelling that it competes with other business productivity or growth initiatives. Anything less than that relegates you to being a caretaker of IT.

One of my direct reports once winced to me that “the business doesn’t want that.” My response was, “It’s not your job to just give them what they want. Your job is to lead and catalyze change that our business needs to be productive and grow. Be a leader and fight in the middle of the ring!”

What’s your philosophy about genius vs. grit?

While there’s baseline skill and intelligence required for enduring success, I believe that passion and perseverance transcend those natural gifts. The passion to get up every day and work really hard to solve problems with the perseverance to never give up makes a difference. Over the course of my career, my teams and I have found ways to outperform our competitors by outhustling them. And I don’t believe in giving up until there are no other options.

From a leadership perspective, it takes a ton of grit to orchestrate diverse teams that include “geniuses,” hard workers, and teammates very passionate about their work. I actually believe the genius is in the grit. The relentless focus on harnessing everyone’s individual strengths in combination to break down barriers to progress and drive innovation takes genius. That genius begins with a ton of passion for the mission and perseverance to achieve a goal.

This outlook goes back to my formative years. I graduated fourth in my high school class, well ahead of classmates who outscored me on generalized state testing—tests over the course of our entire grade-school years. I attribute that success to passion and perseverance more than anything else. Once I figured out how that model worked, I applied it to everything I did, and I realized it allowed me to win. It’s how I’m wired, and I employ it every day.

Tune in to our full discussion wherever you listen to podcasts, and see the full line-up of guests and upcoming episodes here.