File under “foot in mouth”

Last fall I was involved on a project to help a large international organization speed up their globalization process using centers of excellence. As part of the data gathering, I spent some time in South America talking to IT leadership about their efforts to transform the technology group from order takers to a world class IT service organization. In an interview with their VP of strategy, the conversation turned to organizational structure–their Global CIO reported in to the SVP of Corporate Services, putting him three ticks below the CEO…something that always makes me probe further. So I piped up and said:

You know, when I see a new CIO at an organization reporting in under another CXO and driving an aggressive IT transformation project, it tells me two things. First, the previous CIO was likely run out of town for dropping the ball. Second, the new CIO is being put under another C-level leader as babysitter for a year or so to see how they’re going to perform before being given their real spot at the leadership table. So, would you say that your CIO is in this situation, or is the current reporting relationship part of business as usual?

There was a rather long pause, and then she responded, “I should tell you, I was the previous CIO…”, after which I didn’t hear much of anything for a few seconds. When I came to, I wasn’t shown the door, as I expected, but rather was given an opportunity to witness first-hand a great leader in the process of becoming greater.

She talked about how she had come up in the ranks from programmer to manager to corporate leadership, and then had run IT for ten years as CIO. She drove the transformation of IT from a mom and pop shop into a top flite corporate organization, all while the firm was undergoing the arduous process of privatization. She even led them through their initial phase of global acquisitions, which had spurred massive growth in revenue and head count, and had dramatically increased the complexity of their technology portfolio.

But, she continued, her limitations as a leader became clear as the firm tried to integrate these acquisitions into a truly global organization, rather than just a national organization that owned global properties. She didn’t have the ability to think like the business rather than IT and lacked strong diplomacy and political skills.

So, she continued, she could either get mad, walk away, and take a job elsewhere (with all her limitations still intact). Or, she could swallow her pride, contribute to the CIO search efforts, take a spot on the new CIO’s team, and get to work improving her skills (and transforming the organization).

She obviously chose the latter, and although she said bluntly, “It hasn’t been easy,” she also said that she wouldn’t have done it any other way. Had she taken any of the many CIO positions open to her, would she have been able to improve her skills while excelling at her new position? Or would she have found herself in the same boat two or three years later (or sooner)?

One year into her decision, she thought she was making great progress toward closing her skills gaps by working side-by-side with the new CIO, watching him work with the business to lead change, to understand their needs, and to find value propositions that were compelling both to IT and the LOBs.

With my astonishment no doubt written all over my face, I told her how much I admired her decision, that I had never met an executive before who had done something like this, and that in my opinion, she was on well on her way to becoming a remarkable leader.

For me, what she was doing exemplifies an intentional leader–ego, fear, and anger pushed to the side in order to do the right thing for herself and her organization. I hope someday to be the kind of leader who can do what she did in that situation, and I’d love to hear from folks out there about other leaders (yourself included) who’ve made hard decisions like this…I know they must be out there!

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5 Responses

  1. An interesting story. It points out that humility is a characteristic of leadership, and I think that’s worth considering, given that the stereotype most people carry around is based on ego, aggressiveness, blind confidence.

    I also think the phrase “intentional leader” is thought-provoking. I have often thought about the differences between intentional leaders and circumstances leaders — people who are thrust into a leadership position by circumstance. This is the more dramatic leadership story, since it is full of surprise and action.

    Large organizations — corporations, government, the military – make a science of breeding intentional leaders, and the good ones do it by identifying leadership characteristics at all levels, even in unlikely places. Sometimes the best leaders are reluctant ones, and need development and mentoring to fully emerge. Sounds like the woman you were talking to.

    The worst companies simply equate leadership with aggressiveness, and end up putting bullies and connivers at the top. These people can burn out even the most resilient organizations. Carly Fiorina comes to mind, as does Joe Cassano at AIG, and Jeff Skilling at Enron.

    Politics tends to breed the same, with ego and narcissism replacing money as the prime motivator, and power over other people’s lives being the common denominator. I’ve often thought that it ironic that the sphere of life most equated with leaders — government — seems to deliver the worst in leadership.

    There are exceptions of course, and the ones I think about most are the founders: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson.

  2. Joe that was a great read. I have to say I found myself in a similar position last year. After 6 years with ASPE, managing a sales team and carrying a sales number, I cried Uncle. I knew I was not doing either to the best of my ability. In my heart I knew I was not the type of leader our growing company needed for the sales team. I spoke at length with my manager and he gave me the option to pick one role and that he would support me in either position. I chose to do what I do best and that is selling. I love cultivating long term relationships with companies/people. I know now that I made the best decision and I’m sure my manager, who is the company President agrees with me.

  3. I recently read a book called “Virtuous Leadership” There are six virtues of leaders, Prudence, Magnanimity, Courage, Temperance, Justice, Humility. The author also contends in Faith, Hope and Charity as the spiritual virtue. It is an excellent read. Rather than looking at leaders I found myself looking inward to see if I measure up to the tolerance bands associated with each virtue. I would encourage those reading this to do the same. We as individuals will never total measure up to others expectations but the lack of virtues in society today is a root cause of the situations we are in.

  4. Great blog entry Joe! The story you have shared is a good example of true leadership. Being an effective leader involves awareness of one’s limitations. As FDR once said – “I’m not the smartest fellow in the world, but I can sure pick smart colleagues.”

  5. Thanks everyone for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences here as well.

    These are great points, and I appreciate them!

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