Dan Roberts
Contributing writer

CIO Kristie Grinnell on creating a culture of transformation

Aug 18, 2022
IT Leadership

DXC’s Kristie Grinnell has a track record of balancing emotional intelligence and hard business results. Here’s how she puts high EQ to work in cultivating a growth mindset for her teams.

Kristie Grinnell, SVP and CIO, DXC Technology
Credit: DXC Technology

Kristie Grinnell, SVP and CIO of DXC Technology, is an award-winning global executive known for her success in leading large-scale strategic transformations while remaining a calm, decisive, and supportive presence for her team, even when the heat is on. She has that unique ability — something we see among the top CIOs and digital leaders — to balance high emotional intelligence (EQ) and hard business results.

For Grinnell, the two are inextricably linked. As she told me in a recent episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, “People are what drive everything — every decision that we make. You can’t drive transformation without people.” During that episode, she opened up her leadership playbook and explored how she leads with H.E.A.R.T.: Humility, Empathy, Adaptability, Resiliency, Transparency.

Grinnell’s career trajectory shows just how essential these five attributes have become for today’s high-performing IT leaders. Technical expertise may open the door in our profession, but successful technology executives know how to bring out the best in everyone around them by making it safe for them to push outside their comfort zones and achieve more than they even thought possible. As one of Grinnell’s recently promoted direct reports told me, “Kristie pulls it out of you and inspires you. I’ve learned so much from her.”

Grinnell and I spent some more time after the podcast talking about what she’s doing to lead a culture of transformation at DXC and how emerging IT leaders can cultivate a growth mindset. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dan Roberts: What does “leading with values” mean to you, and how do you make your values more than just words on a poster?

Kristie Grinnell: Leading with values, that is my moral compass and my decision compass in everything I do. And that’s why I always have to find a company that is aligned. My personal values and my corporate values have to be aligned or I’m just not going to be successful there.

Coming into DXC, we have very clear set of values. [President and CEO] Mike Salvino sends all of us on the leadership team a card that has our values on it, and I use it in every meeting that I have with the team. It’s the first slide that we show to remind people that it’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it, how you show up, how you have a conversation. How you deliver is just as important as what you deliver. And that is something that I try to instill every day in my team.

Values need to be reinforced and sustained when you are trying to change culture. How do get people engaged and excited about it?

For me, it’s about being even more intentional to show that I’m leading with these values and that it’s not just words on paper. What actions and what behaviors can I drive?

We’re in the middle of culture week at DXC, and we’ve given everyone a “change the culture” placemat, which asks things like, ‘Do you have a bias for action to move us forward to deliver?’ ‘Do you inspire your colleagues?’ The one that’s right in the middle is so important to me. It’s a little smiley face, and next to it says, ‘Laugh/smile.’ We have to be able to have some fun in the way that we work. We’re all people, we work way too long, and I want to work at a place where I enjoy working with the people that I do, where I’m having fun working while I’m adding value.

We’re doing some great things as part of culture week. My organizational change and communications leader, Natasa Vanderveen, pulled together an amazing program that we started yesterday, Gaming with Grinnell. For an hour at the beginning of the day, we invited everyone on my team to play games. They had to guess pixelated images. They had to guess a phrase from emojis. We did a little scavenger hunt. It just brought people together to laugh and smile and get to know each other. We got to learn about people’s families. We got to learn about their vacations. We got to learn about some of their favorite things. It just helps you connect in a different way.

When people are dealing with change, fight-or-flight often kicks in. How do you build that muscle for change in your team, knowing there will be resistance?

When I came in and I did my listening tour over the first couple of months, I asked employees if they knew what transformation journey we were on, and most of them couldn’t answer that question. Yet our CEO has taken pains to deliver this very clear transformation journey that we’re on. He’s said, ‘Here are the five steps we need to take to do this, we’re going to build a foundation and then we’re going to grow, and then we’re going to accelerate.’ He talks about it in our earnings calls, in investor days, and in our town halls. He’ll pop into meetings and talk about it there.

Having that as a guide and a roadmap for all of us — it’s pretty clear if you pay attention. So, we’re taking the five steps and we’re showing them at every meeting. We have five goals that are completely aligned to each one of those steps, and we made sure that every single employee in IT knows, this is what you’re doing. This is how you are adding value to each one of these steps. Because if they can’t make that connection, then they’re not going to know if what they’re doing is driving value or not.

So, we have values, a transformation journey guide, and goals that every person has now said, ‘This is what I’m going to do this year to add value, to drive this transformation journey.’ We bring it up in every meeting. We review it in performance reviews. We make sure that we’re going to deliver status on that to show that we’re making progress.

These are the little things that you can do to build that muscle memory, so it’s not like I’m doing IT for IT’s sake; I’m doing IT to drive this amazing transformation journey for DXC.

You are very intentional when it comes to developing your people. Can you talk about your goal around “proactivity with a growth mindset”?

Everything we do should be thinking about the growth of DXC. Everybody has to put that growth mindset on of, am I doing something that’s going to enable the next thing — whether it’s growing organically in our current customer base, growing a new product offering, or going into a new customer market — are we putting those building blocks in place to get there?

So you always have to think, am I giving people the tools to do their job, and then, am I giving people the ability to grow DXC in the way that we want to grow?

If we can get people thinking that way across the organization, then the sky is the limit, because we are a people-based organization. We don’t make products and widgets. We have really smart people who can do amazing things. We just need to get them all in the boat, rowing in the same direction.

How do you encourage up-and-coming IT leaders to become growth-oriented, strategic anticipators rather than order takers?

One thing that we do is have people think about it as if this were your own business. Is this the decision that you would make? If you have one dollar, would you spend it on this technology?

We need to recognize that we have that role, that power in IT. We should all be thinking that this is our ability to grow the business. Where am I going to put that dollar to get the most bang for my buck? I’m not just over here in IT and have to deliver to my budget. If I can give some of that back to go invest in something else, and it’s going make us grow, look what value IT just added.

Or I might need to invest it in IT because that’s going to give us a new capability that helps us grow in a different way. So really thinking about, how do I run IT as a business and how do I think about that return on investment of every single dollar we spend is important.

To grow, you often have to go outside your comfort zone. You like to say, “In the uncomfortable we learn the most.” How do you push through those uncomfortable moments?

I learned this through my own experience. I was at a company where I didn’t align with the values, and I quit. I have never resigned from a position without having another role, and I was super nervous, but I bet on myself. The former CIO that I had worked for told me there was a CIO role opening and that I should apply for it. I thought, I’m not going to apply for a CIO role! Are you crazy? No way. And he said, ‘You can do this. Put your name in the hat.’ So I said, ‘I’ll do it for you, but I don’t know that I want this. I don’t know that I can do it.’

I went through the whole interview process. I got the job. Even up until that first day, that first month, I thought, what am I doing here? I’m going to fail.

And then, I started calling on my mentors. I talked to my husband about it. I said, I think I bit off more than I can chew. There are some big problems here. And he said, ‘You can do it. Trust your gut.’

So I trusted my gut and put this plan in place. I started asking people, listening about what we needed. And I started to say, ‘I think maybe we could do this. I think maybe we could do that.’ The more uncomfortable I got, the bigger the problems I saw, the more I had to dig deep and really say, ‘What’s your gut telling you?’

Listening to everybody around me — mentors, team members, other leaders — I bet on myself again, and I put this plan in place, and then we had a successful transformation from there on out.  But it’s because I was uncomfortable that I had to dig deep. I didn’t even know what was in me. And now I’m in another CIO role for a Fortune 200 company leading a large-scale transformation again, and I’m like, I’ve got this.

To hear more from Grinnell, tune in to our Tech Whisperers podcast conversation for an in-depth look at how she’s applying each of the H.E.A.R.T. leadership practices.

Dan Roberts

Dan Roberts is the CEO of Ouellette & Associates Consulting, host of the CIO Whisperers podcast, and author of numerous books, including "Unleashing the Power of IT" and "Confessions of a Successful CIO."