by Becky Blalock

Peer to Peer – Playing Nice in the IT Sandbox

Jan 01, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

Like other IT departments, Southern Company’s IT organization has faced its share of challenges. We’ve seen declining budgets, tight labor markets and multiple hurricanes in our service territory. We’ve handled these challenges while providing excellent services and products. That would not have been possible without an effective senior leadership team that works well together.

I’ve worked on many teams during my 27 years with Southern. Some of the teams had brilliant people who didn’t trust one another. Those teams accomplished very little. In contrast, I’ve been on high-performing teams with people who were less gifted in intellect, but who trusted one another and worked together toward a common goal. These teams consistently delivered better results and left a legacy of great relationships. A trusting team is what I set out to build when I became senior VP and CIO of Southern in 2002.

But it took some time and effort.

Southern’s IT senior leadership team is made up of five regional CIOs, one VP of operations and six departmental directors. These leaders span four states and a 120,000-mile service territory. When I was appointed to the post, I knew there were teamwork problems. I also knew the IT staff was shell-shocked from having four CIOs within six years. Five years prior, I had served on this team as CIO for Georgia Power, one of Southern’s five operating companies. So I had some personal insight into what the senior leadership team faced.

The first thing I did as the new CIO was to hold one-on-one meetings with my direct reports. I wanted to learn about each of these individuals, and I wanted them to learn about me. We discussed their most recent performance assessments. I tried to learn what motivates them, and I also asked for each report’s advice. Where should I focus my attention for the first 100 days? What do I need to do to help you be successful?

A common concern team members identified was lack of trust. Some members of the IT senior leadership team felt their opinions were not respected. They cited examples of other team members reviewing notes or checking BlackBerry handhelds while they were speaking. Others said that ideas they shared in meetings sometimes fell on deaf ears until another member repeated the idea and received credit for it.

Another problem was that team members often worked independently of one another. A few years ago, for instance, the generation side of our business, which builds and operates the company’s power plants, needed an asset management tool. A software solution was chosen and implemented for that part of the business. Soon after, Southern’s transmission organization, which is responsible for planning, building and operating transmission lines and substations, decided to look into the same kind of tool. If open communication had been commonplace on the IT team, we might have been able to purchase a tool that would have met the needs of both organizations.

Even though these issues existed, I knew we could become an amazing team. So we conducted a survey to address issues the senior leadership team had identified. I asked team members to rate colleagues on their levels of trust and respect and how open and receptive they were to one another’s ideas. The survey not only allowed members of our team to judge one another but also to judge the team as a whole. The first year we conducted the survey, the IT senior leadership team scored a 6.2 out of a possible 10 points. We realized there was a lot of work to do.

As a result of that survey, we decided to focus on five core teamwork principles: making one another successful, trusting one another, communicating proactively, treating one another with respect and becoming more open to feedback. I then concentrated on developing just such an environment.

The Right Kind of Team

While the majority of our leadership team was already in place when I became CIO, retirements and promotions gave me the opportunity to bring others onto the team. The average tenure of our workforce is 19 years. Within the IT department it is 16.7 years. With such a stable workforce, Southern can be a tricky environment to enter at a senior level. While searching for the right candidate for our application services director, I spent a lot of time asking for input from customers and colleagues. There were certain skills I was looking for that nobody in our company possessed. I wanted someone with experience in intellectual property and outsourcing. At one point, one of my peers asked me what I was doing and why I was taking so long.

That extra work, however, seems to have paid off. Currently, half of our IT senior leadership team consists of women, and we also have racial, religious and geographic diversity. We grew up in different states and countries and have a variety of educational backgrounds. Some of us aren’t “technologists.” Instead, we are businesspeople who have learned how to run IT. The differences we bring to the table sometimes mean we have long, heated discussions. But once we make a decision, we know we’ve viewed the problem from every possible angle.

I also instituted weekly teleconferences, monthly face-to-face staff meetings and an annual team-building event for the IT senior leadership team. When I first joined the team, the weekly conference calls of our far-flung leadership group lasted about 10 minutes and were limited mostly to personnel discussions. I raised the bar on what was expected in these calls. Now, our calls last an hour and we talk about new technology choices, business goals and how our teams can collaborate on projects.

At our annual team-building offsite, we discuss strategy for the year and make time to get to know one another. Because members of the IT senior leadership team work in groups that support different functional organizations, it is easy for one member of the team to feel in the dark about a decision. With these meetings, we make decision making very transparent.

The team members evaluate their peers twice a year on how well they exemplify the five core leadership principles. Each person knows teamwork is a component of his performance evaluation that is tied to pay. But pay is just one of the incentives I use. During my “getting to know you” sessions, I asked each of my direct reports which incentives work best for them. I’ve tried to reward each according to his preferences for leadership development, speaking opportunities, executive face-time and so on.

As a result of these changes, our scores on the teamwork survey have improved. By June 2005, our teamwork score was 8.25. We’ve come a long way. Yet being perfect is our goal. We will continue working until we reach 10 points. And I will continue to learn how best to motivate my team and improve the way we work together as we head into the new year.