A CIO shares his expertise in leadership success

Advice for C-suite executives as they transform their leadership style and build effective organizations.

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Companies recognize that leadership training can pay huge dividends. A  McKinsey research study found that “over 90 percent of CEOs are already planning to increase investment in leadership development because they see it as the single most important human-capital issue their organizations face”. With companies leveraging technology at a greater pace than ever before and investing huge resources in digital transformation programs, CIOs are at the cusp of helping the C-suite understand the benefits of technology and how to capitalize on its use in creating new value in the form of products and services for its customers.

My point here is that CIOs need to learn how to lead. Over the past ten years, I’ve met, interviewed, and written about CIOs and how they leverage technology to improve their company’s competitive positioning. Walt Carter, CIO of Homestar Financial is a CIO whose leadership style I greatly admire. We’ve known each other for the past ten years and often discuss technology and leadership. Carter has held numerous executive roles during his 25-year career and has mentored CIOs along the way; especially in their leadership style. I asked him to share his thoughts with me on this important subject over a delicious steak dinner in the suburbs of Atlanta. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Phil Weinzimer: The pace of change in today’s global marketplace is impacting management leadership styles. Today, it’s all about collaboration, delegation of responsibility, open communication, and transparency. The old style of command and control just doesn’t work today. Why has this change taken place and how does this impact the style of organizational leadership?

Walt Carter:  Great Question Phil. Core answer is that these changes in leadership styles result from companies recognizing the need to increase the speed in how organizations create value. It’s all the result of rapidly responding to customer’s needs, wants and desires by creating new products and services-the result being improved revenue and market share. And with companies leveraging technology at a greater pace than ever before, IT organizations are at the tip of the spear and have to dramatically improve the speed, quality, and value of the services they provide the business. According to many corporate analysts, a large percentage of employees are substantially disengaged – usual reporting is around 60-70 percent. Within IT, we’ve been trying to move closer and closer to our customers for years, with Rapid Application Development (RAD), Extreme Programming, and now Agile and Lean-Agile and the newer flavors all having one thematic connection: Get closer to the customer and deliver faster and smaller iterative builds to confirm or acquire value points. We believe teams are a better way to create value faster.

PW:  You’re 25-year history as an accomplished IT executive has taught you a lot about leadership styles. You often talk about building teams, and how you have developed a process of building effective teams. Can you elaborate on your methodology?

WC:  I have identified two key basic components for building effective teams. It’s all about seeing the future together and then helping guide everyone to that future. Let me explain.

First, look to the founder’s intent in starting the organization, and how does our group map into that bigger picture? Second, I try to map my way through the current culture. Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And he’s right. So, you start to work in alignment with the vision and get the culture working for you -- not against you. If you have a clear vision and a “detoxed” culture, you can get a lot done fast. Remember though the disengagement levels mentioned earlier, and know that you probably will have to clarify the vision over and over, and you will probably have to insert some new language to re-ignite members of the team and get the “lagging” culture in gear.  

What I’ve learned over time is that most organizations lose the founder’s intent somewhere along the path, and the intensity usually ebbs as the guiding light goes out which explains the disengagement and the “lagging culture” mentioned earlier. There’s plenty of great books out there already on the dysfunctions of teams. As a leader, I’ve found that I cannot attempt to “explain this” to the people I’m now working with – I have to model what I want and show them the way to get their hearts back into their daily efforts. One important lesson is that you can' talk them into it, and you can’t nag them into it – you must lead and challenge them to get them engaged. And you can’t challenge them to a fight, or you’ll get that all too easily. Instead, you challenge them to remember the founder’s intent, the purpose of being together and to find some fun on the path forward together to value creation for the group. Get people thinking and probing into the future to get them out of the daily grind. Another important lesson I learned is, as a leader, you have to hear and see before you set off in a direction. People need to know you’ve heard them and that you’ve got them covered as they sort through unknowns and try new things.  Without the necessary bridging conversations -- where you clearly and unambiguously commit to covering them -- the leap to the next level is doomed. With them, you’ve got anchor points to tie off to with individuals and teams that will help you through the inevitable challenges.

PW: I’ve often heard you talk about building a team of leaders. One of the greatest challenges in building a team is to channel the different skills of team members into an effective team that works well together to accomplish goals with speed, agility, and a sense of accomplishment. How have you succeeded in defining the types of leadership skills that comprise an effective team?

WC:  I’ve succeeded mostly because I was blessed with a few leaders early in my career that showed me the way. There’s a critical foundation layer – Simon Sinek calls it “The WHY.”  I have always called it the vision statement – “When we’re finished with this effort, here’s what that will look like and feel like for each stakeholder.”  Casting that vision is the number one job of the leader and every leader working on the effort must be aligned and able to share that vision or explain the why.

Most efforts today require a multitude of different skills along the delivery path. This creates the next most important job of the leader – celebrating differences and getting everyone to work in their individual strengths and bringing their “highest and best use” to the team’s effort. This is sometimes mistakenly referred to as ‘herding cats’ but cat herders don’t get great results. People desire recognition and praise. Praise and recognition create a sense of belonging and community faster than anything else. Do it with purpose and never give false praise – what you call out must be real and must include a value statement. This requires thought and analysis. Good leaders do this well and constantly. Another tip is to always value “learning.”  Every effort can contribute to learning, whether it delivers the expected value or not. Don’t be afraid to do things – be willing to learn.

PW: You often talk about establishing proper boundaries within an organization. Why is this important and how do you go about this in your day-to-day operations?

WC: Accountability is a frequently used word that is usually missing in underperforming teams. In an organization without clear, unambiguous boundaries, how would you hold teams or individuals accountable?  There is no free in our business - everything has a cost. And those costs must be accounted for in many ways. Budget is the obvious first level of boundary followed by standards and then processes and procedures.  In organizations with well-defined boundaries and high accountability, people can move faster with more confidence because the boundary tools listed before all align well and make sense to the people involved. Think about boundaries as “guard rails” or “safety barriers” and you’ll get the drift. I’m not talking about a bureaucracy, which drives smart people nuts, but real, helpful policies and procedures that add confidence and reduce fear. Consequently, any new addition of structure should always be well-thought out and not a knee jerk response to something bad that just happened. Structure is easier to put in than it is to remove. In light of this, the goal of the leader is to move toward value quickly, so any new boundary or structure that you implement has to be accompanied by “the why” and – even better -- will be well-received if it comes from the team itself instead of the leader!  A good way to think about this is a gift to us from the music industry: the inter-band agreement (hat tip to Alan Schaeffer from Banding People Together). How does a record producer get the best record possible from a group of artists with very different and specialized skills in the shortest (studio) time possible?  Answer: Reduce friction before the session with a well-defined accountability agreement that each member of the band helps define and then signs off on. In many ways this is like what a tech leader has to do with his or her “band.” 

PW: With marketplace dynamics changing ever so quickly, organizations must focus on creativity in addition to speed and agility. Most organizations tend to be reactive and believe that speed and agility will solve the problem when we all know that creativity with speed and agility is the key to success. How do you suggest organizations transform into a creative and innovative organization?

WC: My experience is that fear is the enemy of creativity. Years ago, I found an adage that stuck with me in one of Tom Demarco’s books:  He said, “Smart people under pressure do not think any better or faster – it’s usually the opposite.”  Pressure causes “fight or flight” to kick in where the blood leaves the brain and goes to the fists and feet so they can duke it out or run away fast -- not what you want at all and the absolute opposite of forward-thinking and creativity. The simple answer to your question then for me is to remove fear and to recognize and praise creativity. To build a continuously learning team with a culture of experimentation, you have to encourage experimentation, and you have to let people learn from the outcomes, whether positive or negative. Another way to remove fear is to give the teams a “laboratory” to work in and focus attention at the beginning of a project or product lifecycle on clarifying the vision and getting to the details. Yes, the devil’s in the details (all the things that could have been avoided if your planning and contingencies had been detailed enough) but so is the “angel” where you explore ideas and concepts fully before building anything. You can’t get to the good stuff without thinking through the hard stuff. In my early professional life, working on nuclear weapon systems, we always thought through ‘what could go wrong on this effort’ very carefully. It turns out that a careful thinking philosophy applies well to building and delivering digital solutions too.

PW: What advice would you provide C-suite executives in what to watch out for as they transform their leadership style and build effective organizations.

WC: Most of the technology projects fly or die based on leadership – rarely have we encountered insurmountable tech challenges on our builds. But, we frequently get derailed by unmet or unexpressed expectations from key people that can be handled with mastery at the detail level at the beginning and communicated about continuously through the delivery. This is not simple, and it is not easy, but is far simpler and easier than NOT doing it and having your team’s efforts written off as a failure.   It’s really all about leadership and CIO’s that get this deliver win after win and learn to avoid unbounded efforts.

Following are three key recommendations I would urge CIOs to consider in their leadership style.

  1. Don’t work from fear-based responses. Check yourself constantly to ensure that your people are not working from fear-based responses to organizational priorities and that you – as the leader – are not the source of that fear.
  2. Vision-alignment and clarity of expected outcomes. The more predictable you are in this area on each effort, and in your leadership style, the more likely your team will start to work better when you are not with them – they already know what your answers or direction will be, so they don’t need to ask you.
  3. Think about effectiveness. A key phrase in your question above is “…and build effective organizations.” Too many times, I’ve been called into “turnaround efforts” and found that the focus is on cost containment first, not effective delivery. I always try to get my teams thinking about effectiveness first and efficiency later. What are we doing?  Why are we doing it? How will we know when we’re done?  Get something working – what our Agile folks call the minimum viable product or MVP or a working proof of concept in the learning lab. From that initial win, drive through to improve on that build and drive out costs.

Bottom line, Phil – leadership is hard, but not leading and expecting good things to happen anyway is bad thinking. As hard as it can be, leadership delivers results.

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