by Madeline Weiss and June Drewry

Three Easy Ways to Get Better at the Hard Stuff

Dec 15, 20114 mins
CIOEnterprise Architecture

Soft skills are important too—especially in hard times, when leaders must be more open and engaged

The old adage that “the soft stuff is the hard stuff” certainly applies to CIOs. Consider the many new ways we work together today as companies adopt global shared services, enterprisewide architectures and systems, and entirely new business models that arrive in mergers and acquisitions or ­outsourcing arrangements. All this requires finely honed skills in transformation and transition.

In a recent meeting of Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council (SIM’s APC ), we explored the key lessons learned by successful CIOs with track records of leading company transformations. Some tried-and-true tactics emerged, including:

  • Set up a team to guide people reluctant to change.
  • Have a compelling vision or purpose to share.
  • Engage both the rational and emotional sides of your staff.
  • Target and measure desired outcomes.
  • Foster ownership, commitment and idea sharing.
  • Make two-way communication “relentless and ­boring.”
  • Build credibility and momentum with quick wins.

Let’s focus here on the three techniques most likely to fall outside your comfort zone:

1) Have a compelling vision or purpose to share. Cutting costs and increasing revenue aren’t compelling to staff in the same way a visionary goal can be. NASA’s vision, for example, extols the value of revealing the unknown “so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” PepsiCo distills its corporate goal down to “creating a better tomorrow than today.” Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer dedicates itself to “humanity’s quest for longer, healthier, happier lives.” What does your organization’s vision say to employees? All too often, CIOs create vision statements focused only on IT’s role in the company. Redirect that vision to connect more directly with a noble cause that will motivate extraordinary efforts.

2) Foster ownership, commitment and idea sharing. Several APC members have used “innovation jams” to get staff to generate fresh solutions to long-standing problems. One CIO recommended getting staff involved in any transformation plan as early as possible to avoid setbacks later on. Chubb’s Chief Architect Patrick Sullivan, for example, engaged the company’s highly independent business unit architects (with patience and persistence) as he engineered the transformation to a corporate enterprise architecture. CIOs can play a central role in times of change by asking staff at all levels to identify barriers—impediments in structure, attitudes, systems, styles, processes, performance measures, incentives or rewards—and then work together on busting them.

3) Make two-way communication “relentless and boring.” Former GE CEO Jack Welch advocated this for leaders communicating about change. We know how much time-pressed, overcommitted CIOs dislike “wasting time” by repeating what they have already said. But people hear your message only when they’re ready, so CIOs must not only communicate messages many more times than they might like but must also do so in multiple formats. That means writing blogs, holding breakfast and town hall meetings, sending weekly emails, broadcasting videos and chairing panels of company leaders. This is one area where you can never overdo it.

The most successful CIOs share as much info about impending change as they can, as early as possible. One CIO we know shared every decision about a major outsourcing with staff within 48 hours, thus building trust. Another senior IT leader leapt to his feet at a town hall meeting where a major organizational change had just been announced and declared, “I’m so excited and I’m so scared.”

The soft stuff really is the hard stuff. But it’s worth it.

Madeline Weiss is director of the Society for Information Management’s Advanced Practices Council (APC). June Drewry is former CIO of Chubb and a contributing adviser to the APC.