Change management: Why CIOs should sometimes lead from behind

A CIO sets the stage for change, but then you need a network of people from outside of IT to drive change throughout the organization
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CIOs have a critical role to play in change management around a new technology initiative, but it’s not the role you might think. For all the IT work that goes into a change, whether its application modernization or launching a new product, it might seem natural to have a CIO out there in the organization acting as a champion for the change and being its most vocal supporter. But in my experience, the most effective change happens when CIOs are behind the scenes, leading from the back.  

Leading from the back means letting go a bit and watching someone run away with “your baby.” You’ve put in the hard work – you’ve strategized around how you want to modernize, you’ve determined how you are going to support the change and all the nitty gritty IT work that goes into it; Now it’s time to pass the baton to someone who can take that change out into the business and make it real. 

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That’s not to say that you’re conceding all control over how that change gets implemented. The CIO can and should be the person who sets the stage for the change, introduces the change, and demonstrates what the potential benefits may be. IT is there to show the rest of the business that there’s a better way. We are a department of change agents, after all. But the rest of the business must be believers of the changes we’re pushing out. That’s why someone outside of IT needs to stand up and take ownership of driving that change throughout the business.

Recruiting your change agents 

This is where establishing a network of change agents is critically important to the success of any CIO. If you don’t currently have key individuals across sales, finance, and other areas of the business who you can turn to for change initiatives, I strongly urge you to start recruiting. The good news is that once you rely on a change agent once, they will likely be a person you can work with again in the future the next time you need help driving change. 

Stepping into a change agent role comes with a lot of benefits.

While it may sound like a hard sell – you’re asking people to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities, after all – stepping into a change agent role comes with a lot of benefits. For example, an aspiring executive might jump at the opportunity to cut their leadership teeth on a bleeding-edge technology project because it offers a great opportunity to gain visibility and credibility among their peers. As an added benefit, leading a technology change provides deep insight into how the business works and the role of technology in the future of the business. 

Certainly, they will experience obstacles. They will run into people who are worried about what the change means for their job, or people who will challenge them on the financial aspects of change. If your recruit can rise to these challenges, and they are successful in leading change, a new world of opportunities often opens up for them. Once you have a few examples of people who have successfully led a change and experienced the career perks that come along with it, it’s not such a hard sell to recruit even more change agents for future projects. 

Not everyone is right for the job

Of course, there will be times when people come to you with their hands raised, ready to be a champion for change, but they aren’t the right person for the job. Those are difficult, but necessary conversations. If the person’s not ready, the first thing you have to do is explain why. Then you can provide them with opportunities to take on new challenges on their career journey. Who knows – the next time you have a need for a change agent, they might be the perfect person for the job. 

There may also be people who challenge your motives or think you are putting a change agent out in front so you can deflect blame away from IT if something goes wrong. That’s not the case, and It’s important for everyone involved to understand that there’s shared accountability for the outcomes of the change initiative - whether good or bad. When the outcome is bad, we work together to fail fast and evolve our efforts. When it's good, we all learn and grow because we collaborated to drive an important change, with all the complexity, tradeoffs, and human elements that go along with it. You should aim to find someone who truly gets this distinction and welcomes the opportunity to share accountability. 

Nurturing your change agents

When you do find that ideal person in the business, then your job is to make them successful. That’s what leading from the back is all about. You, and the rest of IT, are there to support your change agents every step of the way. 

For me, that means taking calculated risks and giving people room to stretch. I start with an honest conversation about what I think it will take to make the change real, and I put the right guardrails around them to give them the best possible start. When they run into roadblocks, I make sure I’m available to talk it through with them and help them think about the problems in terms of tradeoffs and value. But then I give them freedom to lead. The right people respect the unique opportunity they have, and they take it seriously. I’m there to offer support if and when they need it, but otherwise, I want them to shine – and most of the time, they do. 

Every CIO should know how to recruit and prop up change agents throughout the business. If you are just getting started in this, look for people who have the drive to succeed and advance their role. These are the folks who will make the best change agents. Find them: Your next change initiative may depend on it. 

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As Chief Information Officer, Mike Kelly is responsible for leading the information technology organization at Red Hat Inc., the world’s leading provider of open source solutions. Since joining the organization in 2016, Kelly has focused on leading the IT team as they provide the tools and technologies that enable Red Hatters every day.