Transformational leadership: 5 ways to up your game

Key steps for CIOs and IT leaders navigating transformations
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Do you want to be a transformational leader? If you do, get ready to learn, according to Hugh Blane, president of Claris Consulting and author of "7 Principles of Transformational Leadership." Blane has advised Starbucks, Costco, KPMG, and Nordstrom, among many others. 

Transformational leadership can be especially challenging for CIOs and other tech leaders, he says, because it calls for an entirely new skill set. “One thing I tell CIOs all the time is, your technological mastery will only get you so far,” Blane says. “What will get you to the next level is relational and leadership mastery. There’s this notion that if you come out of programming, you’ll continue to use those skills as you rise in your career, but that’s not the case.” 

[Want to become known as CIO who makes it rain? See our related article, 4 habits of revenue-generating CIOs.]

Blane has identified five major steps IT leaders must take on their way to achieving transformational leadership. You will need them, he says, if you’re going to lift your IT department and your organization out of the status quo.

1. Focus on customers

“Fall out of love with technology and fall in love with customer success,” Blane advises. (A “customer” could be an internal customer, an end user, or an external customer.) He recalls telling a group of 80 executives that their first principle should be to enable customer success. “When you think about it, it becomes transformational,” he says. “All of a sudden, all 80 executives were saying, ‘This is the simplest thing we’ve ever seen, and we can totally deploy this.’”

2. Articulate your purpose

“If I were to ask you your professional purpose, nine times out of 10, people can’t answer that,” he says. “The vast majority of CIOs can’t answer that question. Having a purpose and then helping every employee create a purpose for themselves creates transformative power.”

[TEP_CALLOUT_TEXT_RIGHT:"When you get all these technically proficient people and infuse them with hope and purpose, it’s a game changer"]

In fact, he says, “What CIOs should ask is: Can everyone in our organization describe what our purpose is and articulate their own role in accomplishing it?” You should aim to have at least 80 percent of your employees able to answer that question, he adds. “When you get all these technically proficient people and infuse them with hope and purpose, it’s a game changer. When you can get 80 percent of them doing it, it will transform your organization.”

3. Make some non-negotiable promises

This is where the rubber meets the road. “There are four fundamental promises,” Blane says. “What are the non-negotiable promises you will make to your customers? Your boss? Your employees? Your family?” 

Your promise to your employees might be, “As CIO I will do everything in my power to make your professional life here as rewarding as it can be,” Blane says And, he advises, invite employees to hold you accountable for that promise. “My promise to a customer might be, ‘We’re not going to force our vocabulary on you; we will learn yours and make it easy for you to interact with us.’” 

4. Rebrand yourself around value creation

“Technology folks think about things in terms of projects,” Blane says. “I suggest they have a stretch leadership project where they take promises and purpose and infuse them into their everyday work. This will then project into the culture and the experience all customers have.”

Changing customers’ view of IT will take time and some effort. “The main thing is, how do we convert the perception people have of IT as a cost center?” Blane says. “You have to build the brand and reputation of a profit center. How you do that is to look at all the work you’re doing and ask, ‘What’s the value attached to this work?’”

One CIO who worked with Blane had just completed a $550,000 project, replacing hardware throughout his organization. “I asked, ‘What’s the return on investment?'" Blane recalls. Would the new equipment save time for employees? The CIO answered that it would probably save the 2,000 employees who were using it about 25 minutes a day. 

Blane did the math using average compensation for hourly workers in that state, multiplying that by the number of workers and number of weeks they would use the system and arrived at a total of $5 million. “I said, ‘You gave your organization a 10x return on investment for spending $550,000,’” Blane recalls. “He hadn’t thought about it. We have to infuse value creation into everything we’re doing in IT.”

5. Help people flourish

“Build a strong relationship with customers, and that means trust and respect,” Blane says. “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason, so sit down and ask what’s important to them and listen to them.”

It’s just as important to create those strong relationships with employees. As CIO, you may already know quite a lot about what’s important to the organization, but each employee or manager will have a different set of priorities and goals within that larger purpose, he says. 

“Every leader I’ve worked with wants a flourishing business in a state of excellence where everyone is continually raising the bar,” Blane says. “So, yes, you have to understand technology, but more than anything you have to understand that your job is to enable employees to flourish. Create a cadre of people who know their boss has their best interests at heart. They’ll run towards work instead of running away from it. If you’re committed to that, you’re going to do well. If not, you’ll do OK, but you won’t ever really hit it out of the park.”

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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