4 ways to get comfortable with change: Philly CIO of the Year winners share

4 ways to get comfortable with change: Philly CIO of the Year winners share

IT leaders need to get really good at change management today. Four award-winning IT executives share their strategies

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Today's business and technology landscape demands that IT leaders become more comfortable adapting to change. 

We caught up with the technology executives who recently won the 2019 Philly CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to find out what advice they'd give other leaders who aren't so comfortable with change. And we asked them what they do to personally step outside of their comfort zone. 

The awards were presented by the Philly CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership. Among the recurring themes include the importance of having support from leaders, a readiness to collaborate, and the need to regularly disrupt yourself. 

1. Don't always play it safe (but make sure you have leadership support)

Enterprise CIO of the Year

Robert Thielmann, CIO, Janney: Don’t focus on whether a riskier initiative will succeed or fail. Instead focus on whether there is a compelling case that holds up even if something ends in failure; a bit of the “Prudent-Person Rule” (would another reasonable person reach the same conclusion).

I believe really good technology leaders make good chess players because they are constantly thinking four to five moves ahead for how various permutations may play out. The standout leaders are those who don’t follow the norm and are willing to divert from the safe play because they can articulate a compelling case for a different direction. You can also keep reminding yourself that the consequences for failing on a risky initiative with compelling rationale is usually far less than people imagine. People lose their jobs for bad behavior, not for taking initiative and trying to move the needle with a better mousetrap or idea.

I believe really good technology leaders make good chess players because they are constantly thinking four to five moves ahead for how various permutations may play out.

I have worked on Wall Street for 30 years, over half of that time in the role of Chief Information Officer. From experience, I have learned there is a tendency to get too comfortable in the bubble of feedback within your own company and industry contacts. I’m also introverted but self-aware. To compensate, I do two primary things: First and foremost, I know I’m never the smartest person in the room. I listen intently to people whom I recognize are experts in their respective domains. This ranges from my own managers to vendor representatives to people I meet in industry committees and conferences. Second, and this one comes from experience: I’ve learned to trust my instincts and judgment with riskier ventures. Unfortunately this second factor comes only after establishing a track record of successes with riskier choices.

The key to getting there is to ensure the person you work for recognizes there will be times you make your share of mistakes but to maintain the faith in your overall leadership. And finally in a related manner – always give credit to the right source when riskier things succeed. Benjamin Jowett said, “The way to get things done is to not mind who get the credit for doing them.”  Nothing inspires technology people more than to take a riskier idea and make a success of it.  That will build both loyalty and a passion to repeat.

2. Ensure teams understand *why* change is necessary

Global CIO of the Year

Usman Waheed, CIO & CTO, Knoll: Change is necessary to be successful, embrace it by delivering an ambitious but practical transformation strategy. Be prepared to negotiate and find common ground by collaborating at all levels of the organization. Change is easier when people who are directly impacted by the change begin to understand and believe in a positive outcome for their departments and individuals.

If a C-Suite technology leader is spending more than 10 to 15 percent of their time managing IT operations, they should take a serious look at their organization. Technology leaders need to think in terms of revenue growth, cost optimization, and enterprise risk management. Talent and the skills required to transform process, data, systems, and culture must be positioned to practically engage with business counterparts to drive digital/business transformation. 

I was taught to appreciate that the only constant in life is change. In today’s competitive market, change is essential for the survival of an organization. A well-thought strategy enables me to understand multiple scenarios, identify risk, and quantify success. Taking calculated risks allows me to move outside of my comfort zone and make informed, timely decisions. 

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

3. It's all about your ability to collaborate

Corporate CIO of the Year

Kevin Switala, CTO, Gannett Fleming: We all agree the pace of technological acceleration continues to increase. IT leaders have an opportunity to provide guidance to their organizations amid all the change sparked by today's disruptive technological advancements. However, IT leaders must not strive to determine all the answers themselves. Instead, they should cultivate collaborative teams with a mixture of IT professionals and business subject matter experts to discern potential technological paths, evaluate the options, and identify the most suitable investment.

Leaders discover the intrinsic value of teamwork when they cultivate their emotional intelligence. When supported by effective, cross-business teams, leaders insulate themselves from the possible negative impacts associated with disrupting their business or themselves by constantly introducing change and challenging the status quo.

[ Want to improve your EQ and associated skills? See our related story, Top soft skills for leaders and how to master them. ]

Leaders uncomfortable with experimentation and change might consider small, initial changes to their work and private lives. Over time (months or even years) gradually accelerate that change, especially self-disruption, to see improvement in your business or private life. Small disruptions that challenge your body and mind are excellent places to start such as your personal diet, exercise regime, or community volunteer activities. Consider analogies to these personal changes in the technology environment you can introduce in the workplace, beginning with simple changes that escalate in scope or increase in frequency over a multi-year period of time. Ultimately, you are training yourself and your business to accept a more dynamic environment and constant change.

4. Constantly challenge your current state

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year 

Greg Driscoll, SVP Service Operation & CIO, PennMutual: To challenge yourself, you must have the right mindset. To excel at IT leadership, you must develop a strong understanding of your organization’s strategy and overall direction. Every organization confronts competitive pressure to evolve and the ability to achieve sustained success starts with leadership.

If you wish to be an organizational leader, then you must evolve as a leader, constantly challenging your current state. You must also align with your company’s strategy and deliver change that drives it. As you work to employ the change required to meet your organization-wide goals, you will regularly find yourself living outside of your comfort zone. 

[ Ready to put yourself out there? See our related article, How allowing myself to be vulnerable made me a better leader. ]

As community manager for The Enterprisers Project, Ginny Hamilton helps 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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