Lessons in Leadership

Five Top CIOs share what their careers have taught them.

The best leaders take their lessons wherever they find them — whether in the hard knocks of experience, the generosity of mentors or the clear gaze of their employees. We asked CIOs of five major organizations to share their most important leadership lessons. Here’s what they told us.

John Dick, CIO of Regions Financial Corp.

John Dick, CIO of Regions Financial Corp. The lesson: It’s important to push decisions down into the organization. Ninety percent of the time, people know what the right answer is, but they may not have the confidence — particularly when they’re junior-level — to make the call. Having decisions made lower in the organization provides a more powerful organization.

How I learned it: The “Aha!” moment for me was when I worked at a Big Five public accounting company. The emphasis there was on coming to the table with a whole body of work — the term was “completed staff work” — that was a result of your analysis. That included the situation, an examination of the likely alternatives and your recommended solution. Rather than stop halfway, you were expected to provide the client with the right decision.

When I first arrived at Regions, when something needed to be decided — say the timing of the rollout of a program — some people would come to me and say, “Here’s the analysis, and here are the alternatives.” And then they’d kind of look at me, waiting for the decision. To really leverage the power of the organization and of the people in it, you have to push the decision back to them.

How I pass it on to employees: I always ask what they would do, and I worked to get that philosophy instilled in the organization. Now, they feel unprepared if they haven’t thought through what they would do in a given situation. If I’m in a meeting with three or four people at different levels of the organization, I will often ask the most junior person in the room what option they think is best, and frequently I’ll go with that direction. It’s a matter of reinforcing to them that they usually have more information than me, and if they’ve done a good job thinking it through, then they’re in a good position to make the call. It demonstrates that I value not just their opinions but also their thought process and assertive decision-making. For the organization, it accelerates our speed to market and capacity, and it creates the environment that high performers want to work in.

The tag line I use is that it’s important to encourage people to lead themselves, and decision-making is one of the more salient parts of leadership. There may be places in the organization for people who want to be told what to do. But one of the traits I look for is decision-making and the ability to empower yourself. When you enable that energy and align it with your goals deep in the organization, you see sustainable, breakthrough levels of performance.

Bette Walker, CIO of Delphi Corp.

Bette Walker, CIO of Delphi Corp.

The lesson: It takes a long time to get a change agenda understood in a global organization. Say you want to change a project management standard and apply it consistently across the globe. It takes an average of nine months of consistent communication before the organization starts to understand and embrace it.

Many times, when I’ve started on a change agenda, I’m up to agenda item No. 4 and the organization is really just starting to internalize item No. 1.

How I learned it: The big shock was why it took me so long to learn it! But I learned it by spending a lot of time in the organization, away from my office. And everywhere I go — whether to another campus or to another country — I make a point to do a “diagonal slice meeting,” where I ask a half-dozen or dozen employees who aren’t direct reports to meet with me. Supervisors are not invited. I ask them to share one thing we’re doing right and one thing they’d like to improve. It’s amazing to see, like clockwork, at the nine-month mark, people around the world consistently say the best thing we’re doing is the initiative we started nine months before.

The test of whether your leadership is working is when you go away from the epicenter of the organization and into the operating units and listen to people in operations who are doing the job for you.

I’d like to understand how to make change happen more quickly, but I also don’t want a dictatorship. I want people around the world to embrace change and own it.

How I pass it on to employees: I remind my direct reports that if they’re not doing a good job of communicating, coaching and preparing materials in advance, change will take even longer. And I tell them that employees are much more receptive to news of change if they hear it directly from their supervisors. They also need to go back once, twice, three times and make sure people understand the change item. And key messaging is critical; provide consistent presentation material with speaking notes, along with key message documents. When people in the organization hear the same language and start talking to one another, the organization starts to carry the message and own the change agenda.

David Rice, CIO of Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc.

David Rice, CIO of Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc. The lesson: It’s important to listen to a wide variety of people, but ultimately you have to listen to your own thoughts and feelings as to what’s the right thing to do. Sometimes there’s such a cacophony of voices, and sooner or later, you have to bring the curtain down on those voices and decide for yourself the best thing to do. Otherwise, you end up with a form of cognitive dissonance. Anyone in a leadership position who thinks that someone sooner or later will present them with a golden key probably shouldn’t be in that leadership position. You have to be willing and able to take all the input, synthesize it and decide for yourself the right thing to do, even if what you think is different from all the input you’ve got. Ultimately, it’s what you’re being paid to do.

How I learned it: I learned it from the first chief financial officer I worked for, five or six years ago. I was lamenting about a project-related decision, and after he let me yammer on for a while, he looked at me and said, “What do you think?” It was an obvious question, but I felt like a dork for not asking myself.

The other thing I learned during that time was that there are times when you stack up all the input, and it all adds up to the conclusion that it can’t be done. The problem is, the thing that can’t get done is sometimes exactly what has to get done. So the leader has to have a form of “impatient patience,” where you say, “I’ve heard what you said, and I understand the implications, but we still have to do this or that.” You can’t be dissuaded from taking action just because at first blush it seems irrational.

How I pass it on to employees: I’ve said to people over the years that sometimes the absolutely worst decision is to not make a decision, and that the structure of the company wouldn’t allow them to make such a poor decision that they’ll go off the edge of the cliff. There’s almost an inherent safety net, so they’re better off taking their best shot. Being a leader means having to make tough decisions. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re probably in the wrong job.

Bill Spooner, CIO of Sharp HealthCare

Bill Spooner, CIO of Sharp HealthCare The lesson: The importance of employee motivation. You’ve got to do everything you can to make your employees proud to work for you and proud of what they’re doing. They need to sense the importance of what they’re doing.

How I learned it: I actually learned it from a really good boss I had 30 years ago. We were a fairly small organization, and he really worked hard to make every individual feel important by taking the time to talk with you and have an interest in what you were doing. He built loyalty that way.

How I pass it on to employees: It’s a mix of organized activities and individual creativity. We do little things like buy them pins and shirts — small tokens to say thank you. At staff meetings, we ask employees to show off the work they’re doing. And we also have an employee satisfaction team, which makes sure we follow through on what’s important to the staff. We also do a “leader of the quarter” award, which is a totally employee-driven activity. We created an employee action team that defined the characteristics they thought were important in a leader, and at our quarterly staff meeting, everyone votes on three finalists. Afterward, we have a little celebration and announce the winner, who gets a plaque on the wall, a $100 gift certificate and a lot of praise.

The lesson: You need a high level of personal integrity. As you move higher up in the organization, your actions gain more meaning and impact, so you need to be true to your core, which is shaped by your values, upbringing and business experiences. You’ve got to stick to that core, and when you don’t, you can get negative or undesirable outcomes.

My whole philosophy centers on the impact I have on others. I believe it’s important to be honest and transparent and to establish trust between management and employees. People follow leaders because the leader can take them places they can’t go on their own. And if you violate that trust, people won’t follow you anymore.

How I learned it: I once asked a respected leader what advice he’d give to young executives. He said, “Always do what’s right for the company first, what’s right for the workgroup second and what’s right for you third.” If you practice this, people will never challenge your motives. It all comes back to staying true to your core and having a high level of personal integrity.

Rick Davidson, CIO of Manpower Inc.

Rick Davidson, CIO of Manpower Inc.How I pass it on to employees: Role models need to walk the talk. Many of our jobs have stressful moments where you have to make decisions, and sometimes the right decision is more challenging. People are expecting you to do the right thing, and you absolutely have to, even if it’s difficult.

Leaders must be accountable and take responsibility for their actions. There might be cases where I am at fault, and at these times more than ever, I have to be transparent and truthful. This neutralizes the situation so that we can focus on finding solutions to the problem.

As a leader, I create the work environment, and I hire people who have the same sense of knowing their core.

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Have you had similar experiences? Do you agree or disagree with these lessons? Post your comments at Computerworld's Career Forum:

  •  Lesson: Push decisions down into the organization

  •  Lesson: The long time for change in a global organization

  •  Lesson: Listen to everyone, especially yourself

  •  Lesson: The motivating power of pride

  •  Lesson: The importance of integrity

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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