by Brian Bertlin

Lessons for Mastering Corporate Politics

Jul 01, 20046 mins
IT Leadership

I used to be vice president and chief information officer for engineering and construction company Washington Group International. But last August, the company told me it had decided to eliminate the CIO position and outsource IT infrastructure operations to Perot Systems. While the news did upset me at first, this decision has ultimately become a pearl in an oyster for me. You see, just prior to this event, my wife had been offered a fabulous position in Singapore, and we were in the midst of deciding how to handle that fortuitous event.

Before I tell you my story and what I learned, let me tell you how I got to be where I was. At Washington Group, I worked my way up from group director to corporate director, ultimately becoming the first CIO in the history of the company. At the time I became CIO in 2000, IT was a mess. Each business unit had its own IT, from applications to standards to people. The Hackett Group did a study of Washington Group and found 287 different financial systems in existence. Additionally, we had every make and model of e-mail, PC, network equipment, servers and so on. It was up to the corporate IT group to pull all these disparate systems and data together to create the “company view.” I took on the additional challenge of changing an organization that was focused on the latest technology to one that would be focused on operational excellence and service delivery. I still remember a good business associate of mine telling me that he didn’t know whether to congratulate or console me.

It was an exciting time at the company. We had just completed a $600 million acquisition of Westinghouse Government Services, and we were starting due diligence on a $2.8 billion acquisition of Raytheon’s engineering and construction business that would more than double the size of the company. My boss, the new CFO, brought a very progressive leadership style to Washington Group. We made great progress during this time; about half the company was installed on one ERP system, and we reengineered many core financial processes. (One result: The monthly financial closing cycle was reduced from 28 days to seven.) We also installed a new enterprise data center and a single e-mail system for 13,000 users, and consolidated the independent IT organizations into operations and applications groups. In addition, we implemented a new project management program and launched a new network to connect more than 120 locations.

Unfortunately, the Raytheon acquisition ultimately led the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This was the second bankruptcy for the company in five years. My boss left the company in 2000 and was replaced a few months later with an old-school CFO. He was tremendous at managing the numbers but had an extremely limited knowledge of technology. I was never able to build the same great working relationship with him as I did with his predecessor. I respected the fact that he was focused on the Chapter 11 process, but as a result he had little time for me. In an effort to accelerate building a better working relationship, he recommended bringing in the retired CIO from his previous job to consult with me. Sounded like a good idea at the time. He was a very senior guy, very good at running IT, especially relating to senior management-as he called it “the care and feeding of vice presidents.” I included him in meetings with the internal IT leadership team and gave him access to information about the IT organization operation (financials, strategy and so on).

I have since learned this consultant was part of the team that negotiated (behind my back) with Perot Systems. I’ll be considerably more inquisitive and cautious of consultants next time! I also now see that it is my responsibility to manage the quality of every relationship, especially with my superior. Next time, I will work harder to develop the appropriate working relationship that achieves not only my goals but also satisfies my boss’s.

Ye OIde End Run

The company made a progressive move by consolidating a number of frontline departments-including procurement, project controls and engineering-into a shared services approach under one organization known as the operations center. IT finally had clear business owners for groups of applications that up until now had been ineffectively managed by committees. But the leader of the operations center was a crotchety legacy of the company who never had anything good to say about IT. He never failed to remind me what a pain it was to have to change his e-mail password regularly. (I was very pleased that this was usually the biggest issue he had to bring to my attention.) To work with this guy, I brought in a direct report from the field projects to run our applications organization and work with the operations center leader.

The guy I brought in to lead the applications group was very ambitious but green in leadership skills. He jumped right in and did a great job in the application management area. The business owners of the various application groups began initiatives to create a suite of applications from the dog’s lunch we started with. However, this guy was ambitious, and he developed a close relationship with the operations center leader. A number of times he also met with my boss or other senior leaders in the company, meetings I found out about afterwards. Without my realizing it, a subtle power shift was occurring as more of the business leaders turned to my direct report instead of me. The key mistake I made was not developing and nurturing my own relationship with the operations center leader. In my attempt to develop the leader of the applications group, I let my own significance erode. Next time, I’ll make sure I have a strong relationship with the decision-makers in the company and bring others into the equation as needed. But I won’t let them do my job. A key responsibility of any CIO is to communicate the benefits of IT to the leadership of the company. This has to be done regularly and in the language of the business. The CIO must always be seen as the go-to person in IT.

My time in Singapore has given me the chance to contemplate the string of events that brought me here. I’m also in the best shape of my life because of my regular mountain bike rides through the Singapore jungle. In a funny kind of way, riding in the intense heat and humidity, dodging snakes, lizards and other hazards strikes me as somewhat analogous to my CIO days. I am already applying what I’ve learned about leadership and management to my consulting gigs here, and I look forward to doing the same when the next full-time opportunity comes along. In the meantime, the move to Singapore has been an extremely beneficial experience for me, if only because it has allowed me to step back and figure out how to turn the mistakes of the past into valuable lessons for the future.