7 change management tips: Houston CIO of the Year winners share

For CIOs and IT leaders, leading change is a critical skill – especially now. Top CIOs share change management advice you can use
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Being on the receiving end of change can be challenging in and of itself – leading that change can be downright difficult. For CIOs, leading change is a critical skill, especially in these times, when the ability to adapt and change quickly is essential. 

We caught up with CIOs who recently won the 2021 Houston CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to learn some of their approaches for leading change management. The awards were presented by the Houston CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

7 change management tips for CIOs and IT leaders

We asked these CIOs to share how they help their colleagues be change ready and to offer examples of approaches they’ve taken to get their teams comfortable with change. Read on to find out how these award-winning CIOs are helping their teams adapt. 

1. Try an ambassador program

Leadership CIO of the Year 


Shachella James, VP of IT, CenterPoint Energy: To make sure IT employees are change ready, CIOs must personify and enable a future-ready mindset that promotes a bend toward inclusivity, adaptability and digitization. Demographics across industries and professions continue to evolve and shift. This fluidity requires a leader and employee to be able to deliver results, problem solve, and add value with various types of people. The CIO must be a champion for this inclusivity, in words and deeds.
The dynamic nature of technology also demands a higher level of adaptability. Most industries are embracing agile thinking and ways of working, such that sequential, linear thinking is not only antiquated but can be a real impediment to progress and innovation.  Adaptability includes a focus on skills, technology roadmaps and cross industry challenges. The pandemic caused a tailwind for digitization, raising operational expectations for automation, connectivity, and ease of use, for both employees and customers. A data-centric, digital ecosystem is necessary to drive automation and workforce efficiency. Structuring organizations to optimize these skills and capabilities is a key part of making sure IT employees are change ready. CIOs who focus on being change and future ready as opposed to future proof will be able to keep a steady focus on real-time needs for inclusivity, adaptability and digitization.
Successful change management efforts fall squarely between transparent communications and velocity. To trigger and accelerate change management efforts, start with breadcrumbs to introduce the change in a structured way for intentional buy-in with generous lead time before the change is formally introduced and expected to take place. In short, communicate with "accurate oversimplification," early and often.
For a large scale technology integration program I am currently sponsoring, the program management team has introduced an ambassador program, with an incentive. The ambassador program is a voluntary communication and training program for employees who want to learn and share information about this important activity. Employees need to complete structured courses that will provide a basic understanding about the integration program and test their knowledge with a short quiz. Upon successfully completing the courses, employees will receive a branded incentive, as well as ambassador bragging rights. The program has been well received and is a key part of stakeholder buy-in for larger scale adoption of the technology changes.

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2. Drive change instead of being disrupted by it

Super Global CIO of the Year


Rashmi Kumar, SVP and CIO, Hewlett Packard Enterprise: For most individuals, change is not always easy and 2020 has taught us that we cannot always prepare. I believe there are three foundational things that CIOs and leadership can do to make sure employees are well equipped, so transitions are as smooth as possible within the organization. 

First, CIOs play a critical role in defining the North Star for their IT organization which is inclusive of the mission, vision, and values for the function. The North Star becomes the “constant” and keeps the team grounded, aligned towards a common way of working, communicating and connectedness during times of immense change. It also drives the culture, which has been imperative for us at HPE to emphasize a people-focused culture. 

Second, the CIO must ensure the right operating model is in place to enable the business strategy and provides agility to innovate and deliver at a rapid pace with low complexity. An example of this is shifting away from the traditional IT project model to become a product driven organization, where new capabilities can be delivered throughout the value chain at a more rapid pace leveraging product management tools and agile framework within a robust DevOps model. 

Third, we must create a culture that takes a multi-pronged approach to driving digital transformation based on customer needs as well as end-to-process needs within the enterprise. Taking a holistic approach to driving transformation across the value chain from opportunity to configuration to quote to invoice, and from customer experience to enterprise operations, not only creates competitive edge, but allows the IT function to be more forward thinking on driving change vs. being disrupted by change.  

Having these three things in place, certainly won’t prevent the change from occurring, but they will aid in successfully and more rapidly pivoting towards a new direction. 

3. Accept not everyone will make the leap to drive change

Global CIO of the Year 


Brad Breau, SVP and CIO, Tokio Marine HCC: For employees to be ready for change, it’s important that the organizational culture fosters some level of risk taking and be accepting of both success and failure. Rewarding those “culture carriers” who step up to drive change along with recognizing lessons learned from change initiatives is also important for employees to see and hear. All of this provides employees a safe and rich environment to openly discuss ideas and innovation.

My approach to leading change is to have empathy for those uncomfortable with change and accept that not everyone will make the leap … and that’s OK. An IT organization requires a lot of different people and roles in both supporting the current environment as well as those to continuously drive new change initiatives. The journey is valuable but can be difficult and not for everyone.  

4. Emphasize adaptability as a key skill 

Large Enterprise CIO of the Year


Kim Hales, SVP of IT, NRG: The only constant in IT is change – today’s hottest technologies become tomorrow’s legacy systems. A culture of change is critical to high-performing IT organizations so that little time is wasted on resisting the latest technologies and methodologies.

To achieve this culture, you must make it well known within your team and make them secure in knowing that their careers aren’t dependent on certification of a technology, but rather their ability to adapt, learn, and grow together. 

5. Be empathetic 

Enterprise CIO of the Year


Jesse Carillo, SVP and CIO, Hines: The first thing is to acknowledge that every IT employee is unique, and just because they happen to work for IT, it does not mean that they want constant change. I’m fortunate to have a very diverse team that come from many different backgrounds, many who did not start in IT. This diversity is fantastic for providing different perspectives, but it also means it’s even more important to spend extra time communicating with those IT employees who will be impacted the most by any change. CIOs can’t assume that every one of their employees sits on the “needs/wants change” side of the spectrum. It can’t be said enough: When it comes to change management, there is never a situation where over communication is a bad thing. 
CIOs should also communicate a very clear strategy for how the change will benefit the organization and just as importantly, if not more, how it will affect their team members. Too many times CIOs focus on saying things like, “this change is important for the business to grow,” but they don’t always empathize with what this really means to their employees. At the end of the day, an IT leader needs to make decisions in the best interest of the organization, but when empathy is included in the equation, minor tweaks in the final change can have a very positive effect on team members.
It’s also important to treat every change as if it is a big change. Too many times we say, “well, it only impacts a few users.” However, we have to remember that every customer, client, and user matters. If you build that change management mindset and culture into your team and treat all changes as important, it will become second nature and you’ll build more allies from the user side.

6. Build change into your ethos

Corporate CIO of the Year


Jason Lu, CTO, CSAT Solutions, LP (formerly VP & CIO, Stallion): My approach to change management involves embracing change as a fundamental ingredient of our organization’s core ethos. This inherently creates an employee base that is “change ready.” When the employees become the purveyors of change then they become the enablers, advocates, and trusted advisors of change – change itself becomes the status quo. This a key enabler of building a transformational IT organization. These organizations aren’t just “ready for change,” they are the very drivers of change, with employees finding the best ways to innovate, consolidate, streamline, automate, and digitize  – all of which are forms of change. The employees may wear different hats and have differing specializations, but enabling change is never a surprise when they themselves are the creators change.
I climbed the ranks of technology organizations starting from an IT project manager. I learned very quickly that effective project management isn’t just about on-time and on-budget delivery. Rather the best project leaders ensure technologies are well adopted and bring value. I learned to understand the customer’s perspective –  their apprehensions and their goals. I learned that delivery could only be successful if I truly immersed myself and gained a deep understanding of the business challenges we were hoping to solve. Success came when I could marry on-time, on-budget delivery with strong communications that encapsulated all I had learned about my customers’ goals. As a CIO, that simple formula of over-communicating change with a combination of empathy and value-oriented delivery from inception to completion remains a key enabler of change management efforts. Start it soon, do it often, and then do it again.   

7. Trust is an essential ingredient

Nonprofit/Public Sector CIO of the Year


Klara Jelinkova, CIO and VP of International Operations, Rice University: Trust is key in employee readiness to embrace and champion new ideas and changes. Team members must trust the overall direction and also know that it is OK to fail. Fear of failure and lack of trust are the two main obstacles in IT staff being change ready. CIOs play an important role in setting the tone within the enterprise and building trust across their teams. It is important to learn from failure, but CIOs must be very careful in how that learning is structured so it supports ongoing innovation and trust both by the IT staff and the business leaders IT supports. 

Authentic leadership is an important element to success. You must acknowledge people’s concerns and meet them where you are. One approach we take is doing pre-mortem exercises where we talk about how a big project could go wrong at go-live and develop mitigation strategies. In addition to helping team members and stakeholders name their fear, it also helps them feel more in control when issues arise. 

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.