Changing the CIO Culture Trip

Too often the most useful and rarely practiced management ideas are diluted by buzzwords, clichés, or associations and then forgotten in the discard pile—along with their books. Ken Blanchard, management guru of One Minute Manager fame (now in that pile), also managed to mangle a good idea with his 2003 Servant Leader when he linked Robert Greenleaf’s 1977 material with his own religious makeover.

Yet, when you think about servant-leadership as originally described by Greenleaf, it makes sense for CIOs who even more than other C-level execs, truly rely on their staff to do absolutely everything. And it is surprising to me, anyway, how rarely it is mentioned as a principle of management.

Greenleaf summarized servant-leadership (first described in 600 B.C. by the Chinese sage Lao Tzu who wrote The Tao Te Ching) in 1977 as demonstrated by characteristics of “listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community.”

Wouldn’t attention and focus on these make any IT organization a more positive culture, a happier place to come to work? And how about this from Wikipedia: “At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.”

I was reminded of this after speaking recently with Cheri Spence, CIO of the International Mission Board, who cited it as one of the 10 IMB culture statements. “Servant leadership: being there for the people that report to you, making sure they have the resources that they need, doing any task to help your folks out.”

Cheri offered an example from her own team. “We had a virus (health, not computer) hit our organization and had to move people from one location to another. IT had to set up the new infrastructure. On their own they found mugs, filled them with candy and pencils and wrote a nice note. Do you know how welcome those displaced people felt? That is servant leadership—an act of service, and a philosophy of dealing with others. The higher up you go, the more like a servant you need to be; getting people the resources they need.”

Contrast that philosophy and culture with CIO power trips that seem to permeate so many IT organizations. Cheri has worked in those cultures herself. She described a previous culture in which the CIO was arrogant and showed up late for meetings with the president. He tried to duplicate the environment he had known in the military. The result is that people left because they were scared.

At another company, C-level execs walked past associates without speaking believing it was not in their role to interact with “lower” level staff.

Now let’s think about the self-aggrandizement of so many CIOs who travel the speaking circuit, talking about themselves, their rise to power and influence, and all of the transformational accomplishments their tenure with this firm or that has produced. Sure, running IT is a lonely, thankless role and if no one else is showering praise on you inside the firm, then surely it doesn’t hurt if you describe the legend you’ve become in your own mind. It creates visibility with the press and head-hunters; boosts prospective pay packages; and really lets those back at the office know who is boss.

For those of you who work for or with those hotshots, wouldn’t it be great if, just for a day or two, they saw their role inside the firm as a service role? If they spent as much time trying to develop an understanding of the needs of their own staff and peers? If they turned out to be just as good at listening as they are at talking about themselves? If they worried whether their own folks had enough resources to actually do their jobs? If they admitted that without those people, they couldn’t get a single transformational accomplishment out of the conceptual starting gate, never mind answer the help desk calls, configure a server, implement a software package, or handle a power outage?

As Cheri put it, when I asked her about low effort cultural changes that yield high value: “Listening: a low effort that enables change due to those conversations. People think, ‘Maybe my ideas do count.’ You need to realize that other’s positions are as important as the CIO. I would never say, ‘She works for me.’ when I introduce someone.”

Now an independent consultant, Laurie M. Orlov is a long time practitioner and industry observer. She has over 33 years of IT experience, the last 9 years as a VP and Principal analyst, research director and consultant at Forrester Research. Prior to joining Forrester, Laurie held senior IT management positions in various high-tech companies, most recently as a CIO, driving the implementation of eCommerce-based ERP solutions for a midmarket PC reseller.