by Brian P. Watson, Dan Roberts

Lessons learned on the journey to the CIO office

Jul 16, 2015
CareersCIOIT Leadership

Boeing CIO Ted Colbert discusses how balance and harmony led him to the C-suite at the aerospace and defense giant.

We’ve always been big supporters of the idea that, when it comes to being a CIO, what got you here won’t keep you here. Still, that statement has its limitations: No, talking up your technical know-how won’t win you points in the C-suite, but many of the investments made during the leadership journey can pay big dividends at the executive level.

For Ted Colbert, who was appointed CIO at Boeing ahead of his 40th birthday, remembering what got him there isn’t too tough. As he told us in a recent discussion about his leadership philosophy, Colbert can easily recall his days as a first-time manager, not to mention his experience as an IT analyst.

“I remember how I was treated. I remember what worked and what didn’t,” he said. “I’ve tried to take that up to this level to affect the structure, operating model, and rhythm of this organization. It’s one of the gifts of moving up quickly in my career.”

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One of the efforts that helped him in that journey was building relationships. And as the iconic aerospace and defense company — the largest exporter in the U.S., with $90 billion in revenue in 2014 — charts the strategic course for its second century in operation, Colbert continues to make relationships a top strategic imperative.

Developing and strengthening those relationships is key for Colbert, particularly at such a complex organization. Like many companies, there’s pressure at Boeing to adopt and implement newer technologies, but there’s also the reality that much of its business involves long cycle times, with product platforms that can be in place for decades. That’s why “harmony”— a term Colbert uses often—matters so much. With those competing forces at play, he’s working closely with fellow executives and business-line leaders to strike the right balance between driving innovation and respecting longstanding, tried-and-true processes.

It’s a balance many CIOs must seek — but it goes way past the debate about transforming your business vs. keeping the lights on. Sure, there’s plenty of blocking and tackling going on, but he’s also using the stable platforms to introduce new technologies and processes.

Giving everybody a voice brings real value, breeds success

Colbert’s focus on people is another key underpinning, and another area where balance matters. He’s big on leveraging his diverse organization — company veterans and newer entries, highly technical and non-technical workers, etc.—to bring new perspectives and ideas to the table.

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And with that comes an emphasis on “blurring the lines.” At a previous employer, Colbert ran financial analysis systems, and he quickly found himself deeply immersed in discussions and decisions about forecasts and claims, just like any other expert in the department. He’s using that mentality to essentially eliminate the traditional silos separating, say, consultants, technologists, mechanics and scientists, and bringing them closer together to drive better results. Leveraging those strengths, collaboratively, as he said, leads to a “force multiplier.”

The harmony that comes from that silo-breaking (and the results that come from it) help Colbert better position his IT shop throughout the company. Without it, you’re just a service provider, he said. No one expects the cable guy to help you innovate in the rest of your house — it just doesn’t work that way. But blurring the lines, he said, brings real value.

And those approaches are making a difference. Colbert recalled a recent off-site experience with a business leader at Boeing. Literally the week before, they had what Colbert called an “impactful” outage. But the executive didn’t mention it—not once. They talked about what they were seeing, how they could take better approaches to challenges the company faced. When you have that level of partnership, Colbert said, everything changes. It becomes all about going over the hill together.

Obviously, building strong, enduring relationships with all the leaders across a company as large and complex as Boeing would present a challenge for any IT executive. But by maximizing his organization’s talent and promoting those strengths through his interactions on the executive level, Colbert has created an effective strategy for going over that hill—and taking it.

And in the process, Colbert has brought more clarity to the value he and his organization provides to the company as it embarks on its second century. “Showing up, being a subject-matter expert, and having a point of view is my expectation now,” he told us. “It’s not about being asked to go figure something out—it’s about being there, and pressing the leaders on what’s coming and how we need to leverage it.

“You change the conversation by leading the conversation,” he continued, “and not allowing it to lead you.”