by Alice Dragoon

Eight Strategies for Coaching Divisional CIOs

Nov 01, 20028 mins

When Dana Deasy became vice president and CIO of the Americas for Siemens in 1999, he harbored no illusions that the job would be easy. His main responsibility has been coordinating the efforts of 22 CIOs across North and South America who don’t report to him. Those CIOs are under pressure to put the interests of their own operating unit or region first. They equate anything corporate with overhead, intervention and loss of control. The CIOs all insist their business units are unique. After all, they point out, Siemens is a conglomerate of more than 14 independent and wildly diverse operating units. Deasy knew that to lead this bunch toward collaboration, common solutions and economies of scale, he’d have to be more coach than emperor.

Deasy had spent plenty of time on the other side of the corporate fence, most recently as a divisional CIO at General Motors. “It was my job to do the very same thing CIOs are doing to me today: to try to convey to corporate my view on why we needed to be unique,” he recalls. His experiences, both good and bad, as a business unit CIO shaped his coaching strategies, which are designed to address the operating unit CIOs’ inherent skepticism of all things corporate.

Coaching Tip 1: Listen

People can’t be coached effectively if they don’t believe they’re being understood. Therefore Deasy contends that the number-one skill of an effective leader is the ability to genuinely listen?and to do so with a great deal of empathy. “They really have to believe that you’re relating to them, that you really are understanding their situation, their problem,” he says. “You can’t just sit there and say, Yeah, yeah, yeah, but now let me tell you what I need you to do.”

As CIO of GM’s locomotive group, Deasy felt frustrated when corporate types would seemingly ask for his opinion because they needed to include it in their documentation and check his name off a list, not because they were really going to take his perspective into consideration. He vowed he’d never do that to someone else if he ever went corporate.

Coaching Tip 2: Be Honest

It’s important to acknowledge the natural tension in the corporate-divisional relationship. Deasy doesn’t try to pretend that he’s some sort of corporate Santa Claus. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an effective coach standing right up front and saying, Let me tell you where we’re going to have problems, conflicts, fundamental disagreements. And let me tell how I think we can establish some guidelines on how we’ll work through this and always respect each other’s point of view,” he says.

Before launching into a difficult discussion with an operating unit CIO, Deasy warns him that they’re about to have a conversation that’s going to cause tension. “I want you to consider doing something that will give you a feeling that you’re going to lose control,” he tells the CIO. “You’re going to be asked to be assimilated into something larger, and you may not see at first the financial value of doing so.” That sort of honesty helps diffuse the tension, increasing the likelihood that the divisional CIO will be able to move beyond an emotional response and focus on the business issue at hand.

Coaching Tip 3: Avoid Power Plays

Deasy says it’s tempting to just say, Come on guys, enough of this nonsense, we’re just going to do this. But playing the corporate power card is a risky proposition. “If you play that card, you can work as hard as you want to reestablish credibility, but you’ll probably never get it back completely,” he says.

Coaching Tip 4: Create Trust

The people you’re trying to coach won’t be inclined to listen or respect your point of view unless they’re convinced you truly have their best interests at heart. “Yes, you’re trying to do what’s best for the corporation as a whole, but if they really believe you are their trusted adviser, they will be willing to listen and be coached,” says Deasy. On the other hand, “if they believe you have a hidden agenda, they’re going to fight you all the way.” To that end, soliciting input from coachees before you make decisions is essential to creating an environment of trust.

After three years on the job, Deasy knows he’s making progress gaining the CIOs’ trust because it no longer takes weeks to convince them to get together to bounce around an idea. Now most agree to meet for a discussion after just one or two phone calls?and are willing to listen to each other and work together when they do convene. Perhaps more telling, the CIOs are now calling him more often to confide and ask his advice on sensitive topics.

Coaching Tip 5: Represent Rather than Judge

Another way to convince coachees you’re on their side is to make a concerted effort to represent their point of view at the corporate level?even if you disagree. Deasy, whose office is in New York City, sometimes takes votes from CIOs on topics before he goes to corporate meetings, and he often shows divisional CIOs the materials he’s planning to present before he heads off to corporate headquarters in Munich, Germany. Later, he’ll share with them minutes of the meetings so that they can rest assured their views were presented, their voices heard as part of the larger corporate discussion.

Deasy finds that the CIOs are willing to listen if they think he really has empathy for their point of view, even if he’s telling them they’re likely to get nowhere or create more problems for themselves if they proceed as planned. He also coaches the CIOs on how to work with other executives by asking them the sorts of questions they can expect to hear when they take a proposal to the board.

Coaching Tip 6: Know When to Go over Their Head

Because the divisional CIOs don’t report to Deasy, he can’t fire someone for refusing to go along with what’s best for the entire company. But he goes over their head if he has to. In Latin America, a group of CIOs agreed to seek a single vendor for a common desktop-laptop contract for the whole region; all also agreed to go with the winning vendor. Then one country CIO wavered when his preferred vendor didn’t come out on top. When this threatened to unravel the whole deal, Deasy took up the issue with senior management. “I had to escalate it in pure business terms, showing that if this country continued to go off on its own, we couldn’t get the volume and the economies of scale in our purchasing, and therefore for the whole of Siemens it would cause financial harm,” Deasy says. Management agreed, and the recalcitrant CIO abided by the regional contract.

Coaching Tip 7: Know When to Take a Loss

Deasy has learned that it’s often not worth the effort?and even counterproductive?to try to win over someone who’s really balking on an issue. Forcing an unwilling participant to take part in a discussion generally drags down the rest of the group. “All it takes is one operating company to be reluctant and it can take the positive energy right out of an idea,” says Deasy. “Then you end up going away with no common solution.”

In the past, when Deasy twisted arms to get people to participate in discussions, he ended up with reluctant observers instead of active participants. He once tried to get all five of the largest U.S. business units’ CIOs to agree on a common operating system for desktop help desks. One already thought his was best-in-class and didn’t want to participate. Deasy insisted, but having the CIO in the group proved detrimental. For every 10 reasons Deasy gave for moving to the common operating system, the CIO provided 10 reasons why it was a bad idea. The CIO never bought into the concept, and Deasy wound up with a suboptimal agreement with the other four. In hindsight, Deasy thinks he could’ve convinced the other four to do what he was recommending if he hadn’t tried to go after all five. “I should’ve said if I can get four to participate, that’s probably remarkable,” he says.

Coaching Tip 8: Apply a Full-Court Press

Deasy is quick to share credit for the harmony and agreement he does achieve with his staff of five directors and 32 employees. These direct reports do a lot of coaching work by having initial conversations with the divisional CIOs that pave the way for corporate initiatives. Once the CIOs have time to mull things over, Deasy closes the deal.

For Deasy, effective leadership in an environment in which you don’t have direct control comes down to listening, cultivating trust and having integrity. “It’s the only way you can effectively succeed?other than if you’re purely so damned smart that they’re going to want to use you because you just intellectually have something they need,” Deasy says. “This CIO world is too complex and too diverse today to be too damned smart in everything.”