Senior Writer

Ex-NFL CIO Michelle McKenna on leadership today

Oct 11, 2022
IT Leadership

The Hall of Fame CIO discusses the leadership lessons she learned around accountability and authenticity over the past 10 seasons leading IT for the National Football League.

Michelle McKenna, founder and CEO, Michell McKenna Collaborative
Credit: Michell McKenna Collaborative

The NFL’s first and only CIO, Michelle McKenna, left her “dream job” in March 2022 to tackle a new challenge: advising CIOs, CEOs, and NFL teams on how to lead in this era of digital transformation and the next-generation workforce.

The former NFL exec worked for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for 10 seasons and previously served as CIO at Constellation Energy and Universal Orlando, and as SVP of technology at Walt Disney World. She founded the namesake advisory firm, The Michelle McKenna Collaborative, in April 2022. McKenna also sits on the boards of Ring Central, BBQ Guys, and Amway. She is a writer, public speaker, and is working on her new book, Beyond X’s O’s: A Leadership Gameplan on the Field and in Life, coming in 2023.

McKenna recently spoke at IDG/Foundry’s CIO 100 Symposium & Awards Ceremony in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., where she was inducted to the CIO Hall of Fame. In his introduction to her presentation, Ouellette & Associates Consulting CEO Dan Roberts lauded McKenna for demonstrating leadership skills rarely seen in the C-Suite: humility, empathy, adaptability, resiliency, and transparency (HEART). Senior Writer Paula Rooney recently followed up with McKenna about her presentation and her time as head of IT for the NFL. Here are edited excerpts of those conversations, in which McKenna drew on her experience as CIO of the NFL and prior to outline what IT leadership should look like today.

On the old ways of leadership being over

McKenna: We are at an inflection point for leaders in corporate America — a sea change for what our culture defines outstanding leadership to be. The next-generation workforce is not accepting mediocre or inauthentic leadership. We have never had a workforce hold us so accountable at any point in our history. The cultures, management styles, and incentive structures that were put in place over decades in corporate America are becoming outdated. They’re failing to engage employees. We must acknowledge that nothing will ever be the same again. We must search for new ways to connect, motivate, and encourage the next-generation workforce.

Everything has changed for us. Not only have we experienced a global pandemic, but we have witnessed the most open debate and discussion on race in America to happen in my memory. We have endured some of the most divisive politics this country has experienced, and just before all of this the #MeToo movement gave voice to women of who had suffered sexual violence.  A wakeup call on so many levels — how connected we are to each other, and how others have been marginalized in our world. But times like these can spur evolution. You learn, you improve, and you get better. It also means you must change, and we, in our corporate roles, must adapt to our new environment . Our new environment includes a generation of workers who have grown up and graduated college during this challenging era, and they may have joined the workforce never having been in an office. They have watched things just sort of unravel. I think it’s naive for us to put our head down and act like everyone will approach their work/life balance like before. It was the most challenging yet rewarding time in my career to be a leader at the NFL. The joy of working with a team and leading them to greatness is one of the most amazing and rewarding responsibilities.

On needing to be accountable and authentic with your workforce

The CIO’s first reaction might be that this next-generation workforce, they don’t want the same things that we want. I don’t think that can be further from the truth. They want what we’ve always wanted, which is to provide for their families, a better way of life, to do better than the previous generation. But they have lost a bit of institutional trust. And I really believe that institutional trust has been replaced by individual trust. You must gain the trust of your organization to be a successful and engaging leader.

As a leader, you can’t just rely on your brand or your company and say, ‘Hey, this is Disney,’ or, ‘This is the NFL. It’s a privilege for you to work here.’ It’s more a matter of how you can connect to them. IT leaders, especially CIOs, wonder how they can really influence the workforce. I’m the CIO; I’m responsible for the technology. I’m not head of HR. I don’t set the workplace policies. But the CIO seat is one of the most influential seats in any company because very little gets done without the CIO today. So, yes, CIOs can influence more than ever before.

As to how, I think it can be simple: Just remember to be human first, then the head of your team; this means being more vulnerable at work. A lot of IT leaders worry about being vulnerable because, frankly, they haven’t been rewarded for those soft skills. It’s all about the destination — getting a project done or for hitting revenue targets. In the future, if we’re really going to change things, there must be a reward for an employee happiness quotient or other measure, since we become what we measure. Engagement isn’t enough. You should foster a workplace that enables trust, and since trust is a one-on-one thing, you can do it no matter if you lead 1 or 1,000.

On the need to know your team members individually

Another thing the pandemic did for us is that we got to see inside people’s lives. With everyone having to turn on cameras, you could hear and see crying babies, you could see an elderly parent walk by, you could realize someone is living in a tiny apartment because when they spun around, their spouse or partner is sitting at another desk. The pandemic was such a weird time and gave us permission to talk about things that we had not previously discussed in the workplace. If you give the human element at work and be vulnerable at work, you’ll get it back and then you get to know what each person needs individually and what motivates and interests them. Not every employee needs the same thing. But spending time really listening to the team and observing their feelings and patterns will help you know them.

If you’re perceptive, it’s in the hallways and in meetings. I make a practice of making a note of who was in the room that may have had something to say but didn’t, and I follow up with them. Often, they will tell you if you just ask, and knowing is half of the solution. There’s always an employee in a town hall who will raise their hand and ask that question that makes everyone roll their eyes or hold their breathing thinking, ‘Oh no, there she is; she’s going to ask that question.’ I love those people, but most people are afraid of that person. There is no reward for speaking up in a big setting like a town hall; however, put three or four people together and they will sit and whisper. I try to listen to the whispers.

On how hybrid workplaces help facilitate authentic leadership

You can tell when you are having a truly authentic conversation. In many ways, the hybrid workplace makes this easier because you don’t have to randomly run into someone in the cafeteria or stand outside their office. You can literally message someone during a video call and the next thing you know you’re having a meeting. If employees are on a video call and someone in the senior rank says something that resonates with them, or an employee would like to know more, encourage them to send a private message. In many ways, you can facilitate the initial engagement more easily if you let your team know you are open to DMs. However, to do their best work, a team should find a way to come together, in person. Whether it is a few days a week or a month, it is important for relationships, teamwork, culture building, and trust to have face-to-face interactions.

On leading the NFL’s technology transformation

Systems and data drive the business, and in my case the game. There was a time at the beginning of my tenure at the NFL where I realized the untapped power of technology and data at the league. One example was getting paper printers and paper playbooks off the sidelines of our games. Microsoft was a great partner for us with the tablet because they had a product that was new to them, too. We needed a sideline tablet. The Microsoft Tablet was a huge success for the NFL and for Microsoft. Clubs are using technology more and more and data and analytics helps them in everything from game planning to fan engagement. The NFL makes sure there is competitive equity so that every team has access to the same technology. But they can individually choose how to use it or how to best invest in it. In the 20-plus years I have led technology teams, our impact on the company and the people who work for us and with us has never been greater. Technology experts are in every department — learn to embrace them to drive progress.