My favorite leadership advice: 5 Alabama CIO of the year winners share

What one piece of advice has influenced the way you lead? Get inspiration from these five IT leaders
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You don't get to be an award-winning CIO without help growing in your career. We caught up with five of the CIOs who recently won the 2019 Alabama CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to find out some of the best leadership advice they ever received. The awards were presented by the Alabama CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

We asked the winners to share a piece of advice that has influenced the way they lead and how they've taken it to heart and implemented it in their organizations. Their answers ranged from advice received while working on a farm to training in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Read on for inspiration from these award-winning IT executives. 

1. "Just load the wagon"

Leadership Alabama CIO of the Year 

Scott Mcglaun, CIO, BlueCross Blue Shield of Alabama: While my father was alive, he was a great example to me of what a leader does. I worked my way through college as an employee on my dad’s farm so I spent many hours under his leadership. He had many sayings that stuck with me but one of my favorites is: “Son, don’t worry about the mule going blind, just load the wagon.” 

As leaders we can’t dodge or evade the difficult parts of our jobs. If you don’t address them, nobody will. Problems, unlike good wine and cheese, usually don’t get better with age. Fostering an organization that runs towards problems instead of avoiding them and escalates issues timely and productively is rooted in advice received from my father.

[ When it comes to leadership, are you a mountain or a lake? Read also: 5 weird questions to ask about your leadership style. ]

2. It's only about the people

Large Enterprise Alabama CIO of the Year 

Rusty Yeager, SVP & CIO, Encompass Health: I hatched my leadership skills as an undergraduate as a fraternity president. However, Uncle Sam soon provided me the opportunity to hone my leadership skills with intensive training as a ROTC cadet and subsequently as a young officer. As a squadron section commander, I was asked to lead people who were years older than me and much more experienced. In that role, I learned “it’s not all about the people – it is only about the people.” 

If the people are taken care of, they will perform! Through my Air Force career, I learned to “walk and talk” with the team, and I have continued those concepts at Encompass Health. “Walking and talking” with the team enables the leader to:

  • Set the standard
  • Lead with empathy
  • Do what’s right
  • Focus on the positive
  • Become stronger together

This is the Encompass Health Way – the values that define our workplace culture. 

3. Work yourself out of a job

Enterprise Alabama CIO of the Year

Jamie Adams, CIO, Mspark: The best advice I’ve been given came from a boss I had early in my career. He told me to “always work yourself out of a job.” 

As you might imagine, a comment like that from your boss can cause some uneasy feelings. I admit I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of his advice. I’ve since realized something interesting. Throughout my career, I’ve placed a higher value on everyday decisions that benefit the company and its shareholders, versus decisions that might benefit me personally. For example, as a CIO, I could spend my time building an empire – and few would question it because my area of responsibility is more obscure than most. But that’s not how I’ve ever wanted to operate. Instead, I chose to make decisions – sometimes very tough ones – to transform IT into a lean, high-performing machine that added tremendous value to the business. 

My decisions have led to IT becoming a self-sustaining organization, requiring less of my direct involvement because I chose to hire great leaders. As a result, I’ve been presented with opportunities to expand my leadership beyond IT to other areas of the business. As I reflect on that great advice received years ago, I now understand the meaning of “working yourself out of a job,” and I can’t help but smile in admiration of the person who shared this great wisdom.

4. Assume best intent

Corporate Alabama CIO of the Year

Matthew Jaeh, CTO, ProctorU: As you can imagine, I've made a lot of mistakes and received a lot of great advice. One of those pieces of advice is to always assume "best intent" (told to me by our CEO Scott McFarland). When people, processes, policies, and procedures fail or don't meet expectations, it's always best to assume that the person/people behind the failure tried their best. This resonates with me and my day-to-day life because it helps to clear your head of “what if” thoughts. It helps me move forward with a more collaborative and constructive frame of mind.

5. Hire people better and smarter than you

Nonprofit Alabama CIO of the Year 

Jim Purcell, Former Acting Secretary of Information Technology and CIO, State of Alabama: The best advice I was ever given was by the long-time owner of a company where I formerly worked. He is extremely well-respected, not for his outgoing flamboyant leadership style, but quite the opposite. His advice was to hire people better and smarter than you and they will find a way to make a difference. Don’t hire people to fit a mold and a job description; hire people who bring tools with them.

I have always tried to use that advice when determining not just who to hire, but who to retain. The best people have a passion for succeeding in their job when they are engaged in the outcome. If they feel they can’t make a difference or aren’t valued then productivity ceases. His advice resonated with me because I truly respected what he had accomplished over so many years of “doing the right thing, no matter the outcome.” I think that was implied in the culture he created, which all started with hiring the right people and they will make a difference.

[ Are you leading toward a more innovative culture? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Jim Whitehurst. ]

Former community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helped build the site's community of CIOs, IT leaders, and readers. She is responsible for helping tell the stories of leading IT executives – showcasing the projects, experiences, and challenges they're facing in their roles as IT leaders.

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