Opinion: Leading by letting go

People support best what they help build

In the course of my career, I've seen my share of dysfunctional IT organizations. One of my most difficult assignments was as CIO for a large county government. It was also one of the best lessons in what it takes to energize IT professionals and serve clients ever more responsively.

As CIO, I found myself the head of a centralized IT function that was rapidly decentralizing. County agencies were creating their own IT support functions, causing some centralized IT functions and resources to go unused. Agencies that were still being supported by the central IT operation found their costs rising, and the duplication of IT resources meant taxpayer dollars were being used inefficiently.

Suboptimal? You bet.

Needing to improve things, I set out to gather the facts. I soon found out that I had a lot to learn.

First, I met with clients who had so far stuck with centralized IT and those who had defected. What, I asked each one, can we do to keep your business or win it back? It wasn't a question any of them was in a mood to answer.

Instead, in meeting after meeting, the clients unloaded on me. They told me how for the better part of the previous 10 years they had been unable to routinely communicate with anyone in the centralized IT function. In fact, they had never met with the management team to address IT support strategies or any aspect of the planning, building or running of IT. All I could do was shut up and listen. My attentiveness at least elicited a few comments like "OK, you're new. Let's see what you can do for us."

And this turned out to be the fun part of my fact-finding initiative. At least these people were telling me things I needed to hear.

In my many meetings with my IT professional support staff, questions like "What do you need to be more effective and productive?" and "What would you do if you could do anything to improve our services or avoid cost?" were met with complete silence.

Doing everything I could to eke out a response, I was told things like "We don't need anything" and "We can't decide for management." There was no energy or enthusiasm. Was it fear? Was it me? Was it my predecessor?

My direct reports filled me in. For six years, they said, the management style of the entire IT function could be summed up in the word "control." Nothing was to be communicated to anyone outside the IT function unless the CIO personally approved it. All initiatives needed the CIO's approval, and anyone who championed an initiative that did not reflect positively on the IT function was punished.

Naturally, most IT staffers had decided that the risk of taking any initiative was too high. Those who had tried and had their head handed to them were certainly not going to repeat the experience.

My direct reports and I finally summed up the situation in 10 words: "Our clients are leaving us, and our employees don't care." Suboptimal indeed.

But we all believed we could fix both halves of that sentence.

We decided that we had to run the central IT function as a business. Our first step in the "commercialization" of IT was to form a business systems group, with members carefully chosen from each IT function for their excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

Given the history of mistrust, it's no surprise that things got off to a slow start. But the BSG team members began to test the waters by making suggestions. Why not benchmark the cost of our services against the alternatives? Shouldn't our clients have an IT services directory showing all that we offer and who to call? These were feelers sent out by the BSG team to determine our seriousness. When green lights were given all around, word got back to other IT staffers that we were serious after all. Many more suggestions surfaced. How about a business-oriented communication plan? Why don't we have a newsletter showing our successes and, more importantly, the successes of our clients? When they were green-lighted as well, momentum began to build.

As the service directory took shape, for example, IT service managers began to contact the BSG to ensure that their function was included and properly represented. Because of a small but growing sense of pride, no one wanted to be left out of this convenient, spiral-bound directory when it was printed in the thousands and distributed throughout all county government departments.

Various groups began describing desired performance outcomes with brief mantras. For computer operations, it was, "Lower than two seconds' response time, and no single point of failure." For applications development, it was, "As specified, on time and for the agreed price." We began to hear fewer complaints, a period we dubbed the "wait and see time." Then, instead of having to gauge our success on the basis of the relative silence, we started to receive actual kudos. With that, a spirit of competition among the various IT functions set in, and the trend was irreversible.

Meanwhile, we held a series of client agency meetings to demonstrate that we understood the agencies' various issues. About 10 months in, the county librarian called. She had heard some good things about what we were doing and was considering "recentralizing" her data processing operation. Decentralization had come with its own headaches — IT staff was hard to retain, for example, because they had no career path in her department. She ended up signing back on with central IT, a move that we highlighted in our newsletter with her photo and the quote, "I don't know why I waited so long."

As others followed, central IT's billings grew dramatically. Over the next 18 months, the unit costs for IT services fell to a point lower than it had been in years. More importantly, a good chunk of our IT professionals were demonstrating pride in their work, and creative ideas were flowing.

What I learned

"Empowerment" is one of those terms that are so overused that they don't keep our attention for very long. Instead of employing it, I would sum up the lesson of this experience this way: Managers are served very well when they work to provide an environment where creativity can routinely happen.

What are the elements of such an environment? I believe only four basic things need to be in place:

  • Employees who have the right skills and experience for their jobs and whom you have invested in and trained so that they feel respected and know that you trust them.
  • A clear and unambiguous goal.
  • Accurate and timely information that is routinely provided to employees so they know where they stand with respect to attaining their goals.
  • A fault-tolerant standard of behavior at all management levels.

Each of these elements is important, but the last one is key. You will see no creativity from your employees unless they know with certainty that mistakes are not fatal to careers. They need to feel safe and know there is little or no risk associated with being creative. In fact, a mistake made by a trusted and experienced employee who has taken initiative on behalf of a client's need can be invaluable when the situation's lesson is openly shared.

I've also found that creative organizations are more flexible, move much faster and are much more competitive. When decisions for action can be made at the lowest levels of the management hierarchy, the client isn't forgotten and things happen a lot more responsively on their behalf.

Some in upper management fear this kind of environment and are loath to let go of any amount of power. Their knowledge and insight got them where they are, so surely they are the ones best qualified to make all decisions. To them, I'd like to pose two questions:

  1. Would you rather be served by an autocratic or a creative organization?
  2. Which would you rather work in?

After all, one way of looking at leadership was expressed by Mahatma Gandhi, who once pointed to a crowd and said, "There go my people. I am their leader. I must catch them."

Al Kuebler was CIO for AT&T Universal Card, Los Angeles County, Alcatel and McGraw-Hill and director of process engineering at Citicorp. He also directed the consulting activity for CSC Europe. He is now a consultant on general management and IT issues. He is the author of the book Technical Impact: Making Your Information Technology Effective, and Keeping It That Way. He can be reached at ak@technicalimpact.com.

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