As IT leaders, we know we must be agents of change. Some
of us have embraced this challenge more readily than others.
The main reason we have struggled to meet this new expectation
is that for years CIOs were not valued for their leadership
skills per se but rather for the project management and
technical skills necessary to meet the basic blocking and
tackling of IT service delivery.
Now we find ourselves setting strategy and creating
competitive opportunities for our companies. What this means is
that we can no longer lead through control of projects and
resources, expecting our staff to do as we say. Rather, we have
to demonstrate we are worthy of being followed. We need to be
authentic. Authenticity of leadership is the first step toward
building high-performance teams.
The Leader Makes the Culture
A high-performing IT organization has a culture that I call
purposeful. This culture is characterized by:
- A clear, compelling purpose that drives decisions and
ignites passion among employees.
- Shared values that serve as guidelines for delivering
on the organization’s promise to its
- A work environment that encourages individuals to take
ownership of the organization’s performance and its
The successful integration of performance with culture
starts with the CIO. We establish our organization’s
shared values. Then we live them.
I have experienced how powerful an organization becomes when
this is done well. But I have also been in situations where I
have neglected to connect my goals with those of my team and my
company. Early in my career I had a management style best
described as “lightning rod.” I loved to be at the
center of things. I relished being the person everyone called
when they needed to get something done. This role was helpful
in situations where I needed to create the appearance of
cohesion in a team—for instance, when the business had a
negative perception of IT. I was able to cut through roadblocks
and force action. It made me look good.
However, I failed to notice the negative impact of my
management approach over time. During this period, my decisions
reflected my own purposes. I left organizations regularly,
seeking the next big thing. And I left my teams rudderless
because I had not developed effectively the capabilities of
everyone around me. Their business relationships suffered, and
negative perceptions crept back when I left.
I was continuing along this path of charismatic control when
I became CIO of Royal Caribbean in April 1999. The next year,
Terry Pearce, author of Leading Out Loud, urged me to rise
above this tendency and become a more engaged leader. Pearce
was conducting a workshop with my team. Before leaving, he
pulled me aside and challenged me to give away my
“power.” I began developing shared values and
attempting to create a purposeful culture. I committed to
staying at least five years. I told my direct reports my plans
and asked them to hold me accountable.
Then came 9/11. A month later I had to lay off 50 percent of
my organization. And I became a believer in what I was
espousing because I saw the benefits of the new leadership
approach in action.
I watched as the survivors sought refuge in our shared
values, relying on their belief that these would not change
even though everything else was changing. I understood then
that my team was motivated not by my persona but by the common
cause of restoring an organization they believed in. The team
became stronger with a group of leaders united in our values
and purpose. Although we planned to do nothing more than
maintain the current IT environment for the next year, we ended
up introducing some of the most advanced IT capabilities in our
industry, such as a ship-side Internet café and online
cruise bookings. We also benefited from the creation of a
climate where my staff was not afraid to tell the truth. We
used a process I call “Undiscussables,” with ground rules for
discussions about uncomfortable subjects. Initially, we had 64
undiscussables, ranging from whether DB2 or Oracle was the
right future database platform to problems with vice presidents
whose behavior was not aligned with our values. We addressed
every item. Two years later, we didn’t need the process
because we had learned to address even the most difficult
issues and keep moving ahead.
How to Live Your Values
Here are three ways that you can improve your connection to
your team and begin building a purposeful culture.
- Connect with your organization’s purpose and
values. I look for the key element of the company’s
strategy and attach IT to it so the team can see how their
efforts enable the company’s success.
- Evaluate and align key IT practices so they promote
enhanced performance, risk-taking and commitment. We have
continuous improvement teams, which look for opportunities
to celebrate success, create recognition and reward
programs, and streamline processes. We introduced “No
Meeting Thursdays” to allow managers time to spend with
- Model the organization’s purpose and values. I
try to greet every person by name and express a sincere
interest in what he is doing. At AmerisourceBergen we
agreed as a team not to have a holiday party last year and
instead donated time to a local food bank. When we promote
someone, we highlight that person’s results and
We built our organization by hiring a lot of outsiders. As
we started to promote from within, we proved that we were
willing to work with people to grow internally. This, in
conjunction with a clear career path grid, has made it easier
for managers to match their staffs with projects that will help
them achieve their career goals within the company.
Bad leaders use control to get results. Good leaders get
people to work for them. Great leaders get people to work for a
cause that is greater than any of them—and then for one
another in service of that cause. Engaging in a common purpose
and executing that purpose according to shared principles
enables your team to accomplish something no individual could
do alone. This is what our role as IT leaders is all about.
Tom Murphy is senior vice president and CIO with
AmerisourceBergen. He can be reached at